Former Arizona champion jumper using pandemic as motivation in senior season at UCLA

UCLA’s Jai Gruenwald hopes to return to form in spring 2022, her senior year. (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Su/UCLA Athletics)

LOS ANGELES – Jai Gruenwald, who was a nine-time state champion in track and field at Chandler High in Arizona, has struggled to reach similar heights at UCLA because of the pandemic.

As an alumna of Chandler’s powerhouse program, Gruenwald’s promise is clear, but like many college athletes, her sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic in 2020, and strict COVID-19 guidelines in Los Angeles made her junior season tougher than usual.

“We couldn’t practice for the first two months, especially in LA everything is really strict, we have LA County rules that were very restrictive,” Gruenwald said. “We could no longer practice from 2 to 6 anymore, it was restricted to like an hour a day, four hours a week.”

In May, during the final meet of her junior year, the 21-year-old hoped to advance and compete in the NCAA championships for long jump, but her season ended when she placed 11th in the Pac 12 Championships. Gruenwald missed the Top 5, which was needed to advance, by just 1.5 feet.

Now, she’s aiming to reach her full potential next spring during her senior year at UCLA, and put the pandemic behind her.

UCLA’s Jai Gruenwald shown competing in her main event, long jump. (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Su/UCLA Athletics)

“It really strengthened my mindset,” Gruenwald said. “It gave me a mindset of not letting anything stop me, no matter what.”

This may be exactly what Gruenwald needs to help her fulfill her dream and qualify for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

“I started this sport at 7 years old so I can get to the Olympics, so I can become a champion, so I could pursue my dreams,” she said.

Gruenwald, who began running track for the Arizona Cheetahs Track Club in Chandler, believes her success growing up gave her the drive and motivation to always be better and continue her success.

“I went to Regionals, Junior Nationals and Junior Olympics and everything when I was younger, so that kind of gave me a vision of what I could do in the future,” she said.

These moments were just the beginning of her journey.

In her freshman year at Chandler High, she already was competing against the best in Arizona. Winning the state championship for long jump at 15, showing that she was leaps and bounds above her competition.

“It was really encouraging to win so young,” she said.

For many, this type of success at such an early age may have allowed them to be overly confident and take extra days off. But Gruenwald is focused on her next goal.

“When I start to think about each day individually, it can feel repetitive or redundant, I can feel tired, so I’m thinking about what I want in the future,” Gruenwald said. “It’s really just long term thinking.”

This mindset led her to three more state championships in long jump, which was capped off in her senior year when she broke the state record that had been set exactly 40 years before.

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“This is one of my most vivid memories and happiest moments in track,” she said. “That was my last jump ever on the Mesa Community College track, and so just going out with a mark, going out with a bang literally, was so fun.”

According to MileSplitAZ, her record jump measured at 20 feet, 6.75 inches, shattering the old record of 20 feet, 4.5 inches, which had been set by Roxane Keating in 1978.

Gruenwald believes she wouldn’t have had this type of success without Chandler High School and the coaches she had.

“Chandler has helped me in every way possible. From the coaching staff to the support system to the trainer to the athletic facilities. Especially, for me, it was my relationships with the coaches.”

Chandler High has been a track and field powerhouse in recent years, especially for the women’s team. The Wolves have won 14 of the past 15 Division 1 state titles.

Gruenwald earned numerous awards after her senior season, including Gatorade Arizona Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year, Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year, American Family Insurance All-USA Arizona High School Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year, and ended her high school career with nine state championships across four events: 100 meter hurdles, 300 meter hurdles, long jump and triple jump.

“I think my work ethic separates me,” she said. “I’m not the fastest person, but I do work very hard and I’m very determined.”

Jackson Devine jack-son de-vine (he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Los Angeles

Jackson Devine expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Devine is participating in Cronkite News Los Angeles and has worked as a sports journalist for AZPrep365.