Michael McPherson’s hands twitch and shake repeatedly, as though he had three too many cups of coffee. It’s violent enough to be seen from the start line to the end of the long jump pit.
The sophomore track and field athlete doesn’t have a logical answer. Logic doesn’t have much say when it comes to a hand-shaking routine right before a legs-only event.
“I dunno, it’s like magic fingers?” McPherson jokes. “It’s to kind of bring the energy spirits close to me. I don’t know how it developed, it just kind of came to me.”
If nothing else, it gets people’s attention, though not the kind an aspiring athlete would hope to receive.
“It’s funny, ‘cause I get crap for [the hand-shaking thing],” McPherson said. “Everybody’s like ‘what the heck? What are you doing?’”
At least, they used to ask that. Not anymore.
* * *
McPherson was in sixth grade when it happened. It was P.E. class, and the class was going through the track-and-field portion of the curriculum.
A Colorado native, McPherson hadn’t yet found his sport of choice. He wasn’t inspired by the sand-filled pitch at the end of the runway on sight. This was P.E. The teacher said “jump,” and so he jumped.
Further than everyone else in the class.
“That’s when it all started, I think,” McPherson said.
Flush with the knowledge that he was good at something, McPherson took it as far as he could through high school. He was nearly exclusively a high jumper despite his sixth-grade revelation in the long jump. For the time being, this was about having fun and being pretty good at something at the same time.
“Before, we used to get the high jump mats out and we’d sun-tan on them,” McPherson said. “There was a spring board, so we’d see who could do a front flip the highest. It was so ridiculous.”
* * *
Hands still twitching and shaking, McPherson moves his right leg in front him, slowly mimicking a running stride. Then he moves it behind him. He repeats the motion twice more. The quad muscles are clearly defined, the result of months of training with the UVU coaching staff, many of them having run in their prime for BYU.
By this point, McPherson has already forgotten what assistant coach ___ Adamson told him the previous time. If it’s the the 110-meter hurdles, it’s “bring your trail leg over.” If it’s any event involving any running – and all of McPherson’s do – it’s “fix your arms.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those two things,” he said.
Both are out of his mind now. It’s about the routine, the perfect start to his run.
* * *
McPherson’s parents played sports in high school, his father hitting up the baseball diamond, his mother the track. Neither played beyond the prep level, leaving little evidence that their son would someday sport NCAA-level athleticism.
He certainly didn’t look the part. The 5-foot-11 Colorado native was a skinny afterthought compared to the more prominent football and basketball players he went to school with.
“To this day I get crap [about being skinny],” McPherson said. “We do the shot put in the decathlon and I’m just so bad. It’s sad. Everybody, girls, coaches, you name it.”
Even as others found it hard to take him seriously, he started taking track more seriously. His junior year saw him qualify for the state championships in the high jump, lumping him in with the rest of Colorado’s best. After day one, it dawned on McPherson that he wasn’t nearly as outclassed as he thought he’d be.
“Just going to state and being around really good athletes, I was like, ‘I can hang with these guys,’” he said. “’I should just start taking it more serious and seeing what I can do.’”
The mental change preceded the physical. McPherson stopped relying on his gangly athleticism. He started weight lifting, training daily. He changed his diet, his sleeping patterns.
“It became not just ‘that practice,’” McPherson said. “It became everything.”
* * *
McPherson takes off, his shoes eating up the orange track surface, his arms undercutting the air in front of him with each stride. The “UVU” on the chest of his jersey flaps wildly from the combination of wind and motion.
As far as motivation is concnerned, those initials are a right up there with PR (personal record). McPherson knows UVU isn’t supposed to finish first, not when BYU, Utah, and the like are on the same field.
To him, that’s a perk, not a punishment.
“I think part of the funnest thing about being at UVU, being an athlete here, is when you beat the big dogs, ‘cause they’re like, ‘what the heck?’” McPherson said. “Especially when you’re taking down BYU. That’s always a good feeling.”
* * *
Utah Valley was just one of several options on McPherson’s table. Utah State, New Mexico, Colorado State, among others, were also vying for his attention.
Bigger schools didn’t come knocking. McPherson had been named All-State in Colorado and All-American Decathalon, but he still wasn’t considered a first-tier prospect.
Still, McPherson had enough collegiate attention to deal with, and he used every day he could to sort it out. By the NCAA signing deadline, he still hadn’t made up his mind.
“It was such a hard decision to me,” he said. “I took till the very last minute to decide.”
The morning of the deadline, McPherson walked down the stairs, still not sure of where to go. It wasn’t until he put pen to paper that he made his choice.
“That morning I remember coming downstairs and I was like, ‘well, I think I’m doing it,’” McPherson said. “’I’m just going to go to UVU.’ I just signed it and I went to school that day.”
The pick was a bold one. UVU had just barely secured fully accredited NCAA status. Their home track and field weren’t completed. Yet it wasn’t the prestige or the arena (or lack thereof) that caught McPherson’s attention. Looking back, McPherson says it was UVU’s unreserved faith in him that made him commit to a leap of faith in return.
“UVU made the best offer to me, as far as scholarship goes,” McPherson said. “I was a pretty unknown athlete. They took a gamble on me. I did decent in high school, but I wasn’t going to be a standout or anything. They risked a lot on me, I think.”
* * *
As best he can without over-thinking it, McPherson toes the board and takes off.
The hardest part for long jumpers is to throw their entire body into the jump, to disregard comfort and convention in favor of form and function. McPherson does so, his once-twitching fingers nearly touching his toes as he sails through the air.
As often as not, his mother is there, watching. McPherson says her passion for her son’s success is “unreal.” She exhibits it through conventional, motherly ways.
“She’s always lecturing me about how I need to eat right and sleep right,” McPherson said. “She’s crazy about it.”
Then there are her train rides from Colorado to Chicago just to see her son perform a few seconds’ worth of athletic ability. Why the train? She’s afraid to fly. So she takes to the tracks.
Even if it’s only to see her son fly in the air instead.
* * *
McPherson knows he’s logging a lot of firsts at Utah Valley. He’s just not sure how long they’ll last.
“It’s cool seeing your name up on the record board,” he said. “You just kind of cross your fingers that it stays for a little while. I’m always thinking, ‘man somebody’s going to come and just obliterate this.’ I’m always trying to make it a little bit better.”
The 22-year-old holds the school records in the long jump (24 feet, 4.5 in.), indoor heptathlon (5,112 points) and the indoor 4×400 meter relay (3:17.19). He beat out every BYU athlete in the heptathlon at this year’s Air Force Invitational, taking third overall.
Yet despite all his accomplishments in less than two seasons, McPherson still feels his appearance saves him undue attention.
“Sometimes I feel it still doesn’t [dawn on people],” he said. “I’m just another skinny kid. I don’t think anybody really knows. It’s fun in a way. I know and that’s good enough.”
* * *
As heels meet sand, McPherson tries to complete the jump, eke out as clean a landing as possible in order to not lose precious inches. Once he knows that’s done, it’s safe for him to turn around, to hear or see the result, see the fruits of a few seconds of furious effort.
“I think the best part of track is after you’ve done an event and you do better than you’ve ever done in it before,” McPherson said. “When you get a PR. Just that feeling, it’s so good.”
It’s a moment he considers as personal as the initials PR indicate. No longer is he competing for the heck of it, or because a teacher asked him, or to gain what little popularity that can be had. Track has become McPherson’s passion, tempered with purpose.
“When I first decided [to come to UVU] my love for track was pretty young,” McPherson said. “It’s just grown ever since then. Now it’s the best thing in the world.”
Twitchy hands included