But as a first-grader, Kitchens was only the second-fastest – he bemoaned his rival’s longer legs – and he was asked to try the long jump.
It was the right move; the Glenn Hills graduate is now heading to London to represent the United States in the Olympics.
“I remember Carl Lewis, just like a lot of kids in my era. Just how dominant he was, an ambassador for track and field and the United States,” Kitchens said about the winner of 10 Olympic medals, including four gold in the long jump. “I was told to, ‘Run as fast as you can. Run like Carl Lewis.’ I did well.”
Kitchens, 29, has starred at Glenn Hills and earned All-American honors at Clemson. But succeeding at this level is different. Hundreds of texts and calls have flooded his phone, so Kitchens often keeps his phone off.
He secured his spot in London by jumping a personal-best 26 feet, 111/4 inches (8.21 meters), which gave him the Olympic A standard and a third-place finish.
Just three years ago, Kitchens jumped a wind-aided 8.23 meters. But he didn’t compete in the World Championships in Berlin because he was without that wind-legal A standard and someone below him was chosen.
But when he returned to Eugene, Ore., in late June and got that 8.21 – no wind question this time – Kitchens proved he thrived under pressure.
That ability has him optimistic about his chances in London.
“I’m excited to see how my body will react in that type of environment,” Kitchens said. “I’ve never been on a world stage like this, but I know I’m a big-meet performer, just like I proved at the Olympic Trials. I think, with the combination of how well I’m training and just being in that electric environment, my body will go really far.”
When he arrives in London, Kitchens isn’t just going for a spot on the podium. He wants a number: 8.95 meters.
“I’m just going to prepare my mind and my body to beat the world record and see what happens,” he said. “You got to strive for Mount Everest.”