Roderick Townsend And Ezra Frech Are Taking Over The High Jump
by Al Daniel
Roderick Townsend has won a pair of men’s high jump T47 gold medals in the Paralympic Games, four more in the World Para Athletics Championships and one Paralympic gold medal in the long jump.
Now the 31-year-old is chasing more while overseeing, feeding into, feeding off of and occasionally taming the same competitive drive in his T63 understudy, Ezra Frech.
“Coming in, I was unbelievably hungry,” Frech, 18, said of the 2023 world championships in Paris, the pair’s first international venture as mentor and mentee. “I kept saying that: I was hungry. I was hungry for this world title.”
Even in placid moments when he meditates, Frech is always on. Townsend confirms this after the two roomed together in Paris, and endearingly likens his protégé to “a 3-year-old golden retriever.”
“It’s strong, it’s fast, it can do anything it wants to do,” Townsend said of his fellow California native. “But it has a motor. It won’t stop; and that’s Ezra.”
The canine comparison fits on another level. Townsend has been coaching Frech for four months, a span that packs at least two human years in golden retriever time. Frech’s output in Paris shows a similarly rapid growth.
Two years after 1.80 meters placed him fifth on the high jump T63 leaderboard at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, Frech finished his second world championships in July with a 1.95-meter leap. That, plus another jump of 1.91, eclipsed fellow American Sam Grewe’s 1.90-meter world record. It also earned him his first world title.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Frech said.
Frech had raised his personal best to 1.83 by the time he started training under Townsend. Their partnership was barely a week old when he upped that by two centimeters.
“Everything improved dramatically,” Frech said, “and has been since.”
Meanwhile, on July 11, Townsend claimed his fourth consecutive high jump world title with a new world record of 2.16 meters. He also earned a silver medal in the long jump in Paris.
With his turn in the high jump coming two days after Townsend’s win, Frech carried the pressure to match his mentor. He was enticed by the notion of completing the pair of golds by an athlete-coach tandem.
“It was super motivating and just added to that hunger, added to that fire,” Frech said.
But neither Frech nor Townsend are above looking back or down on where they once were. With the long jump, Townsend long jumped a career-high 7.43 meters at the Tokyo Games, improving upon his jump of 7.41 in Rio that earned him a gold medal. But in Tokyo, Cuba’s Robiel Yankiel Sol Cervantes edged him by three centimeters, leaving Townsend with the silver medal.
According to Frech, Townsend displays that silver medal on his wall to remember that competition. To meet a goal that lofty, Frech says, “You must be obsessed with it. You must sacrifice more than anything else. You must be thinking about it more than anyone else.”
Frech has his own way of symbolizing that singular focus. Even after his definitive triumph at the 2023 world championships, his phone’s screensaver still depicts Tokyo’s high jump T63 medalists — Grewe and India’s Mariyappan Thangavelu and Sharad Kumar — on the podium. Frech witnessed that scene firsthand from no more than 60 feet away.
“He’s never going to let that happen again,” said Townsend, who through Frech’s presence and partnership has a new incentive to notch nothing short of gold.
“I know Ezra’s going to win,” he said. “I would hate to be the reason that we don’t get to say we both won.”
Townsend’s world-record breaking performance proved that wouldn’t be an issue.
As they seek more sparks ahead of the Paralympic Games Paris 2024, Townsend is poised to put more of his imprint on Frech’s trek. The latter, fresh out of high school, has reserved a gap year to prioritize training for Paris and courting college coaches. As a Boise State graduate and the newest key cog in Frech’s rich network of family and friends, Townsend will lend guidance on that route.
In terms of track strategy, Townsend will keep a casual approach. His focus is on the mind, as his practice system is designed to exhaust Frech’s nerves before the crowds convene.
There are days when Townsend sets the bar via coin toss, others through a guessing game. Frech never knows the specifics until go-time. Nor is he sure whether Townsend will grant him 10 mulligans or terminate the session on his first shortcoming.
“Throwing in randomness,” Townsend said. “Keeping things inconsistent just so that it forces us to practice being consistent.”
Another 12 months — or several more dog years — of that can only yield a more formidable duo of gold-medal retrievers.
“As we get ready for Paris 2024,” Townsend concluded, “I think the kid is really going to be a force of nature.”