By Sean Hartnett
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Olympic hurdler Jeff Porter never runs alone. The Somerset, New Jersey native always has the full backing of a devoted family that goes out of its way to support his athletic dreams.
Parents John and Linda were ever-present figures at track meets and football games Jeff and twin brother Joe competed in. His parents always made whatever sacrifices were necessary to give their sons every chance to realize their dreams.
“When I started getting good, my dad and mom were in the stands everywhere — absolutely everywhere,” Porter told WFAN.com. “One weekend I had regionals in Knoxville and my brother had regionals in North Carolina. My parents drove from New Jersey to Knoxville to watch me run and then drove to North Carolina to watch my twin brother run — and they were back to work the next week. I don’t ever run alone. These are the dreams of my entire family. My dad and my mom are two of the biggest fans I ever had.”
The Porter twins excelled on the gridiron and the track at Franklin High School. While Joe went on to star as a Rutgers cornerback and eventually played for the Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders, Jeff was winning Big Ten meets and capturing the 2007 NCAA national title in indoor 60-meter hurdles representing the University of Michigan.
Football was always Jeff’s dream. He continued playing football for Franklin High through his senior year. Though he was recruited to play college ball, he understood track success came naturally to him.
“I couldn’t get out of that mindset,” Porter said. “In my mind, I was going to go to college to play football. After football season was over, that’s when all of my time and energy got dedicated to track. I began to progress in track at much faster pace than I did in football. Track is where I found my niche.”
It was John’s suggestion that Jeff take up hurdling because of his long legs. From a young age, John realized track success was going to be in Jeff’s future.
“As a kid, you would see the flashiest pair of $100 Air Jordans,” Porter said. “I really want that pair. My dad would never buy me a pair of Jordans — ever. But he would buy me a $100 pair of spikes. After he passed (away), I asked my mother why he did that. My mom said: ‘Your father believed that you would get further in your life with a pair of spikes than you would with a pair of Jordans.’ Those kind of things resonate with me.”
John was tragically taken from this world far before his time. He was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in December 2006 and passed away in 2008. The family said John, who was a non-smoker, developed terminal cancer as a result of what he inhaled escaping New York following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“It’s comforting to know that I am never running alone,” Porter said. “Through the disappointments, through the heartaches, my father never lost faith in me and my abilities. He was always predicting where I was going to be, what it would take to medal, what it would take to be on the top. It’s very comforting to know I have that support from my family, I had that support from him. These races that I run aren’t just for me alone — it’s for my entire family. It elevates us, it shows us that we can do anything.”
Porter finished fifth in semifinal heat 3 at the 2012 London Games. Heading into Rio, he feels better prepared to cope with the adjustments that come with Olympic competition.
“I wouldn’t change the experience for anything in the world,” Porter said. “My experience in 2012 showed me what the entire Olympic setup is like, what to expect when all the changes occur at the Olympic games compared to a normal international race. There might be 45 minutes from the time you finish your warmup to the time you get out on the track. Now, having that mindset and getting past the awe of the Olympic games, I’m ready. This is a business trip. The 2012 experience showed me all the mistakes I made and I’m looking forward to cleaning all those bad boys up and getting on the podium.”
This time around, 2012 Olympic defending champion and 110-meter hurdle world record holder Aries Merritt will not be among the field. A rare congenital kidney disease interrupted his preparation for Rio and he narrowly missed the cut for the U.S. Olympic team.
“Aries is a phenomenal competitor,” Porter said. “That was his year. At this point, this race is wide open. I don’t think there’s any clear-cut favorite. To be completely honest, favorites don’t mean anything in the 110-meter hurdles. Unlike the 100-meter dash, there are 10 barriers that can change the dynamic of any race. Those 10 barriers are unforgiving and have a mind of its own. You have to treat each one with respect. You’re not just racing against people, you’re also racing against time and making sure I clear these barriers. Anybody who makes the fewest mistakes on that day will end up on the podium.”
Porter will never be satisfied until he’s wearing an Olympic medal around his neck. That’s because of the lessons and the mindset his father instilled in him. He began rattling off the events John had attended while battling cancer: the March 2007 NCAA championships, the May 2007 Big Ten championships, the June 2007 USA championships, and the list goes on.
“The thing I will always appreciate the most, is no matter how sick he was — he was going through chemotherapy and radiation — dad showed up to the races,” Porter said. “He showed up with the oxygen tank and he was happy as hell. I couldn’t figure out why he was so damn happy. He was happy because he got the opportunity to see what his son did and was going to do. Those lessons, that belief, that drive, that tenacity — it pushes me. I can never settle because I know my dad would have never allowed me to settle.”
John’s spirit lives on in the legs and the determination of his son, who is gunning for an Olympic medal.
“When battling cancer, my dad believed that he was going to prove everyone wrong,” Porter said. “That’s why I do what I do.”
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey