Going for gold
Hartselle’s Quanesha Burks leaves for Tokyo Olympics
By David Elwell
For the Enquirer
The Tokyo Olympics moved into high gear this past Friday night with the opening ceremonies.
For Hartselle’s Olympian Quanesha Burks, the Olympic experience officially began Saturday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when she boarded a plane headed to Chicago. Then it was 13 hours in the air to Tokyo.
“That’s a long time in an airplane, but I’m excited about the trip,” Burks said. “It’s been a long journey to get this far.”
Burks is the second athlete from Hartselle to participate in the Olympics. Basketball player Vickie Orr played in the 1992 games in Barcelona, Spain.
The long plane ride for Burks is just another bump in the road for the long jumper.
The biggest obstacle right now is COVID.
The pandemic delayed the games for a year, and Olympic organizers have banned spectators from the games after Japan declared a state of emergency amid rising cases in the country.
“I hate this COVID stuff so much,” Burks said. “I have been tested so many times and so many ways that I think I could help give the tests.”
Burks’ long jump competition starts Aug. 1, with the finals scheduled Aug. 3.
“This Olympic experience means so much to me and my family and friends. It would be so wonderful if they could make the trip to see me compete.”
Earlier this year it looked like the chances of Burks making the trip were down to zero. While training in Baton Rouge in February, she had a bad landing that injured her right leg. At first, team doctors thought it was a torn ACL that would have required surgery.
An MRI showed the ACL was not torn. Instead, her femur, the longest and strongest bone in the body, was badly bruised. Additionally, her patellar tendon, which attaches the bottom of the kneecap to the top of the shinbone, was sprained.
“The doctors did not think I could recover in time for the trials,” Burks said. “I knew the odds were stacked against me, but I never questioned God’s plan. At times it was overwhelming, but I stayed the course and would not let myself get down.”
Burks said she spent the next three weeks resting her leg. The goal of her first rehab sessions was just to get her injured leg to bend. The rehab time stretched into two months, while she limped around wearing a walking boot.
“The hardest thing about it was trying to stay in shape while I couldn’t train,” Burks said. “I’m used to training all the time. I can’t sit still and do nothing.”
In the long jump, there is an advantage to having a long body. Long legs can give a competitor some added distance in an event in which quarter inches can make a huge difference.
Burks, however, is not tall, measuring 5 feet, 4 inches.
Her success is based on speed. She flies down the path to the sand pit, hits the mark and soars through the air until gravity finally returns her to earth.
In 2013 Burks won the Class 5A long jump state championship. She competed in college for the Alabama Crimson Tide and won the NCAA outdoor long jump championship in 2015 and the NCAA indoor championship in 2016.
“My plan was to use the Olympics as a way to share my story,” Burks said. “I come from a small town and didn’t have a lot. I worked at McDonald’s and made $100 every two weeks. I thought it was the best job ever.”
Burks used her money to help pay for insurance for the family’s only car. She would drive her grandmother to work at 4:30 a.m. and then carry her sisters to school.
“I thought if someone could see where I came from that maybe it would inspire them,” Burks said. “It would be Golden Arches to Golden Medals.”
The injuries healed. Burks credits drinking a lot of milk and taking calcium pills. Soon she was back training and ready to return to the Olympic Trials; she had been there in 2018 but finished fourth and missed a trip to the games in South Korea.
This time, Burks would not be denied. In the fifth round of the finals, she recorded a personal best at 22 feet, 10 inches.
Burks’ infectious personality, along with her use of social media platforms, has made her popular with media outlets. She was a guest on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and Sports Illustrated published a feature story about her.
After interviews this week with ESPN, CBS and a Japanese TV network, Burks cut off all media access after Wednesday. She had a long checklist of things to do before her trip to Japan, and she also needed to focus on the goal of her trip.
“This trip is about competing for a gold medal that says you are the best in the world,” Burks said. “I want to be ready to compete at the highest level.”