Thea Lafond stood proudly on one of the biggest stages in the world, spreading the Dominica flag across her back.

She caught the camera with the corner of her eye and could not contain her excitement. With her hands shaking, she turned to the camera, to the world and said, “We did it!”

LaFond just made history in the triple jump at the 2024 World Athletics Indoor Championship. The University of Maryland alum leapt more than 15 meters, a career best that won a gold medal. She became Dominica’s first world champion.

LaFond was born in Dominica and moved to the United States, eventually settling in Maryland with her parents as a child. Her mother, Anestine Theophile-LaFond, believed in the value of extracurriculars and signed her daughter up for multiple.

“Education that is only rooted in the book is not complete. So how do you find out about yourself? By interacting with others. By learning new things.” Theophile-LaFond said.

In high school, Lafond started by playing volleyball and after a friend’s encouragement, joined her school’s track team. By LaFond’s senior year, she was winning all her events.

LaFond, wanting to go out-of-state for college, first verbally committed to Penn State but declined the offer after receiving little scholarship assistance.

“Being an immigrant and watching your parents work their butt off, day in and day out to make ends meet, to create a future in this country for themselves and their children — I knew that I worked my butt off to ensure that loans would not be a situation,” LaFond said.

Her high school coaches suggested she look at Maryland, citing the team’s strength and the ACC’s pedigree. Most importantly, the Terps offered scholarship money. LaFond, still wary of staying in state, decided to visit for a day.

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“To my dismay, I really, really liked it,” she said.

LaFond’s college coaches first pushed her to compete in pentathlons. She won, but hated it. She begged her coaches to let her compete in her four favorite events — high jump, long jump, triple jump and hurdles. She promised she would score well and followed through with strong performances.

LaFond left Maryland in 2015 — a year before the Rio Summer Olympics — with multiple All-American honors, a conference champion in the ACC and Big Ten, and the 2015 Big Ten Field Athlete of the Year.

Frank Costello, one of her college coaches, told LaFond she would be a phenomenal triple jumper as she trained for the 2016 Olympics. LaFond initially ignored Costello’s advice, focusing on multi events before realizing her mistake..

“It took about two months for me to realize I had to make a call and say, ‘Frank I’m sorry you were absolutely right,’” LaFond said.

LaFond switched to triple jump and made the Olympics, but struggled with a hamstring injury. She finished dead last in the event.

LaFond, unhappy with her performance, wanted to try something new. She contacted two coaches — Muhammad Halim, who was a triple jumper for the US Virgin Island team, and Aaron Gadson, a triple jumper for the United States. LaFond had little success.

“Crickets,” she said. “I reach out to him, nothing. Call him, straight to voicemail, text him again, nothing. I’m desperate.”

LaFond, determined, commented on every single one of his Instagram posts asking him to call her back. Her message was finally received — LaFond, Halim and Gadson met, and asked LaFond when she wanted to start training.

Tomorrow, she recalled replying.

She improved immediately. LaFond switched legs and began using a double arm technique. In just more than six months, she improved more than a foot — rare in track and field.

“We’re always trying to build,” Gadson said. “You look at Thea seven years ago to now, she was like a different person.”

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In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, LaFond was ranked in the top 30 going into the finals but fouled on “one of the biggest jumps of [her] life.”Amid LaFond’s heartbreak, her coach found potential positives.

“I know this sucks, but we got you in shape to be one of the top jumpers in the world,” LaFond recalled Gadson saying.

LaFond didn’t see the logic behind Gadson’s words at first. With the support of her family and a sports psychologist, she pulled herself together and continued training.

She continued to chase victory but fell short, finishing fifth at the 2022 World Athletics Championships. At the 2023 World Athletics Outdoor Championship in Budapest, Hungary, she jumped 14.90 meters but finished in fifth place.

“Any other time in the history of my sport, a 14.90 would get me a medal,” LaFond said. “At this point I just want the world to see what I’ve been working on.”

LaFond brought those close finishes with her into the 2024 World Athletics Indoor Championship. She also brought personal tragedy — Carissa Etienne, her brother’s godmother and a close family friend, died in December.

Etienne, a Dominican health care advocate, doctor and Pan American Health Organization director, was Wonder Woman to LaFond, she said.

“The amount of respect and the things she overcame. If she can do that, I can jump in the sand,” LaFond said.

LaFond finished with bronze in the previous November’s Pan-Olympic games. On a post of LaFond from the Dominica Olympic Committee, LaFond recalled Etienne commenting, “so proud of you, next time we need a gold.”

That’s exactly what LaFond did.

LaFond always wore a yellow ribbon — Etienne’s favorite color — during competitions. It was in her hair as she soared 15.01 meters, setting a record and capturing that elusive gold medal.

When she was 16, LaFond made it onto the podium for the Caribbean Free Trade Association under-20 games. She saw the Dominica flag raised — green, yellow, black and white with an imperial parrot at the center — a visual representation of her home and everyone in it that helped her succeed.

She latched onto that sight, wanting to see and feel it again — a pursuit that brought her pain but eventually, to the pinnacle of her craft.

“I can’t even say I’m rewriting Dominica’s history books,” LaFond said. “It’s not being rewritten, it’s being written for the first time for me.”

(Photo courtesy of Thea LaFond)

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated that Thea LaFond’s high school coaches first pushed her to compete in pentathlons. It was her college coaches. This story has been updated.