When Hammed Suleman, Cal’s leading triple jumper, prepares to perform at a track & field meet, everyone in attendance seems to notice. Standing 6 feet, 3 inches tall, he simply commands the attention. And when he raises his arms and encourages others to start rhythmically clapping before he starts down the runway on his way to the sand pit, fans and competitors alike heed his wishes.
Suleman returns their participation with a smile, and the support appears to drive him to hop, skip and jump as far as he is able. He is engaged with the fans, and they with him.
Through three competitive seasons at Cal, Suleman ranks as one of the best in school history in the triple jump, and for much of the 2013 season, he was No. 2 in the country in the event having leapt 53-4.50 at the Texas Relays in March. Yet that distance provides only a glimpse at what is possible for the junior out of Deer Valley High School in Antioch.
“He has a great combination of speed and power,” director of track & field Tony Sandoval said. “If you look at triple jumpers, they get better with age. I see him as an elite international triple jumper down the road. I think the fact that we finally got him healthy is going to bode well for his future.”
Given the inner drive he possesses to reach his potential, a healthy Suleman could become a figure on the triple jump scene for many years down the road. And after several frustrating seasons, including a redshirt year that kept him on the sidelines for nine months in 2011, Suleman appears headed towards such accolades.
Suleman arrived at Cal after capturing the state high school triple jump title in 2009, and as a freshman in Berkeley, he was a conference finalist in both the triple jump and long jump. The following year, he captured the MPSF indoor title in the triple jump with a then-lifetime-best effort of 52-10.75. He later placed 12th at the NCAA Indoor Championships and expected much more out of himself once he turned his attention outdoors.
However, a hard-to-diagnose ailment put Suleman on the shelf by mid-March 2011 with pain in his lower leg. After initially believing the injury was a stress fracture, then a muscle problem, Cal’s medical staff determined Suleman had nerve entrapment and soft tissue compression, which put pressure on a nerve and resulted in painful takeoffs.
Although Suleman had success in the interim – he returned to become the 2012 Pac-12 runner-up in the long jump and also qualified for NCAA regionals in the triple jump – he just started coming around in 2013 after undergoing several surgical procedures to relieve tension in his leg.
Suleman still has good and bad days, but overall, he believes the disappointment of the past two years is behind him.
“It’s been a winding road, up and down,” Suleman said. “But I’m still blessed to be here and trying to stay positive and live out every day the best that I can.”
In particular, Suleman’s 53-foot jump at the Texas Relays earlier this year assured him that he can do so much more.
“It gave me a lot of confidence knowing that on that particular jump, I put my hand back (on the landing), which took more away from the jump,” Suleman said. “To have done that tells me I’m on the right track. I’m just staying positive.”
Suleman continued his upward trajectory at the Pac-12 Championships. On the opening day, he captured the conference title in the long jump with a distance of 25-11.50, and a day later, he was runner-up in the triple jump. In June, Suleman qualified for the NCAA meet in the long jump, as well.
Suleman’s natural upbeat attitude translates very well to his social welfare major and intended career path. Although he would like to train and compete after he graduates next year, a master’s degree in social work is a clear goal.
“I love talking to kids and giving them my experiences and try to make it easier for them so they don’t make the same mistakes I did,” Suleman said. “I try to help them understand certain things that they’re going through. I try to help them get the most of this position in their life, especially underprivileged kids. How are you going to help yourself? How are you going to get better? What if this doesn’t work out? I try to give them the best advice that I can. There are certain distractions in the community that can sidetrack you from what you need to do.”
Suleman speaks from the experience of regularly returning to his high school in Antioch and talking with members of the current track & field team about the challenges that lie ahead.
“I’ll give them encouragement and try to be a younger coach and kind of relate to them,” Suleman said. “I have a good relationship with the teachers and the principal. It’s always a good feeling when I go back and feel welcome.”
While a student at Deer Valley HS, Suleman took up track & field because his older sister ran for the team. At first he tried a little bit of everything before an assistant coach encouraged him to become a jumper. His first year, he managed only 16 feet in the long jump (“Nothing impressive,” he said). He improved to 22-6 in the long jump and 46 feet in the triple jump by the end of his junior year, but he still wasn’t where he wanted to be.
“I was so motivated to be the best that I can, that whole summer I got on a regimen,” Suleman said. “I was on the track by myself running stairs. I couldn’t be on the bottom like I was the year before. It really motivated me to see what I could do, to see how much work I could put in and see what the effects were.”
Adding to the incentive was a conversation Suleman had with Cal associate head coach Ed Miller. Suleman asked if Cal would recruit him, and Miller replied that the Bears would take a look once he reached 49-50 feet.
In Sandoval’s words, Suleman “exploded” his senior season, picking up an extra five feet in the triple jump and registering a best of 51-2. Although Cal was late to get into the recruiting mix, Suleman eventually chose to become a Golden Bear and is taking advantage of his time in Berkeley. Not only is he relishing the teaching he receives from his event coaches, but he constantly scours the internet for videos of triple jumpers to pick up as many tips as he can.
“Is it going to work for me? How does it work for them? I try to diagnose everything about it,” Suleman said. “What muscles are they using, are their arms parallel to their legs, how much speed, what is their strength-to-weight ratio? I just try to break everything down. The triple jump is a very technical event. Do one little wrong thing and you feel so much pain. When everything goes right, it feels very good.”
With one more season at Cal and hopefully many more competitive years after that, Suleman hopes that the triple jump feels good to him for a long time.
By Herb Benenson