EUGENE, Ore. — Calling Inika McPherson the most unlikely of Olympians wouldn’t be much of a stretch.
She’s 5-foot-4 and competes in the high jump — a discipline usually dominated by taller women.
McPherson is also only a few months removed from a 21-month suspension after testing positive for cocaine.
And yet, the 29-year-old will be on the U.S. team in Rio de Janeiro — and sure to stand out, thanks to her blue-striped hair, a pair of red lips tattooed on the side of her face and a made-for-the-movies story that included washing dishes to make ends meet while she was waiting for the drug ban to elapse.
“I think everyone should march to their own beat, just really live life. But I came to the point where I was harming myself and my dreams,” said McPherson, who finished third at track and field trials by leaping 6-4 — or one foot higher than she stands.
That positive test was jarring — to her and her family. Her life at that point was moving “too fast,” she explained.
McPherson tested positive after an in-competition sample she provided on June 29, 2014, at the USA championships in Sacramento, California. Her suspension was announced that December, with the ban made retroactive to July 27, 2014. It gave her a chance to return in time for trials.
“It was a surprise to me. I was like, ‘What is going on? No way this can be happening,’” said McPherson, who lives and trains in Houston. “It was something that happened that I really learned from. Don’t ever put yourself in that position or in that environment.”
The toughest part was having a conversation with her mom — that she didn’t have a drug problem, that she was just as perplexed.
“My mom was concerned at the beginning, ‘What’s going on in your life that you would test for that?’” McPherson explained. “But we sat down and talked.
“Not to put it on the people I was around, but I turned into one of those people. I was hanging out with the wrong crew, going a different route. I’m thankful for that whole experience, because I can share that so others won’t have to go through that.”
It was painful to be away from a sport she fell in love with in fourth grade, after a gym teacher set up a makeshift high jump. They would run into the gym from the doorway and bound over the bar.
She’s always been good, real good. She went to the University of California, where she finished fourth at NCAA indoor championships as a senior. Everything was progressing on an upward trajectory — made the U.S. team for 2011 worlds, U.S. indoor runner-up in 2012, outdoor runner-up in ‘13 and outdoor champion in ‘14.
Then, she tested positive for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine.
“It was more, ‘what’s going to happen now?’” she said.
McPherson worked at a temp agency and frequently drew assignments at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston as a dish washer.
Sometimes, people who didn’t know her would ask: What do you want to do one day?
Her answer never wavered, even if it drew some raised eyebrows: Make the Olympic team.
“I never took my eye off the focus or the dream of what I wanted to accomplish,” McPherson said.
It was hard for her and her coach, Patrick Pyle, to always find a training facility. So they improvised in a gym at 24-Hour Fitness, simulating the high jump by running up to the basketball rim and trying to grab it. Turns out, McPherson has such hops she can actually dunk a tennis ball.
“We chose to go those unorthodox routes to keep things very fresh,” Pyle explained. “That way you didn’t have the stress and the everyday routine of being at the track.”
Whatever they were doing certainly worked. McPherson finished third behind 32-year-old Chaunte Lowe and 18-year-old Vashti Cunningham, the daughter of longtime NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham.
McPherson had even more pressure because, being away so long, she didn’t have the Olympic qualifying standard of 6-4. She had to hit that at trials to secure her spot.
Not a problem.
“I wasn’t concerned at all, because I had (reached the standard) a couple of times before I got here,” McPherson said. “I was going to get it.”
McPherson is hardly your average height for a high jumper. Consider: Lowe is 5-9 and Cunningham 6-1.
“I have to work a little harder than the taller jumpers,” she said, laughing. “It’s all good.”
One thing’s for sure: She stands out. She dyes her hair whatever color strikes her and went with blue for the trials because, “I looked around and saw a lot of blue.”
She also has more than 30 tattoos, including the eye-catching lips ink. She said it represents how a mother or a grandmother will kiss you on the cheek.
Soon, she wants to add another tattoo — the Olympic rings.
Her family also is scrambling to get tickets to Rio. They don’t want to miss this show.
“My family was supportive — that’s how I really made it through these two years,” McPherson said. “No way I could have done this alone.
“Sometimes, you have to ask for help.”