2024 Paris Olympics

Olympic triple jumper will listen to his late father's voice before he goes for the gold

Salif Mane, a 22-year-old track and field phenom from New York who lost his father to Covid early in the pandemic, is considered a medal contender at the Paris Olympics.

Salif Mane
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One U.S. athlete’s bid for Olympic gold is being fueled by his father’s voice. 

But Salif Mane’s father won’t be in Paris to cheer on his son when he competes, for the first time, at the Summer Olympics in the triple jump event against some of the world’s top athletes.

Instead, the 22-year-old New Yorker will perform the same ritual he did when he won a spot last month on the U.S. track and field team and struck gold at the Olympic trials: He will listen and relisten to the voicemails his father left him in December 2019, a few months before he died from Covid.

“There are three voicemails from him that I kept,” Mane told NBC News. “In them, he just says positive things like I am praying for you, or go out there and do well.”

It’s the last phone message from his father, Thierno Mane, that motivates him the most, Mane said.

Silver medalist Russell Robinson, gold medalist Salif Mane and bronze medalist Donald Scott pose
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Silver medalist Russell Robinson, gold medalist Salif Mane and bronze medalist Donald Scott pose with their medals after competing in the men's triple jump final on Day Ten of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Track & Field Trials at Hayward Field on June 30, 2024 in Eugene, Oregon.

“I would prefer to keep what he said to myself,” said Mane, his voice cracking a bit as he spoke. “But if I’m not feeling well, or if I feel I can’t win, hearing his voice makes me try harder. I feel like he’s with me.”

Mane was born in the Bronx to immigrant parents from Senegal. He said his father came to the U.S. in the late 1990s and his mother arrived a few years later. He has a younger brother and a younger sister.

His mother, Fatou Seye, runs a hair-braiding business in the South Bronx, not far from where Mane grew up. His father took the subway to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, home of NBC News, where for more than 22 years he worked as a dishwasher at an upscale restaurant.

“I don’t remember the name of the restaurant and I don’t think I ever went to see him at work,” Mane said.

What he does remember is that his father was often exhausted when he returned home and his hands were raw from hours of washing dishes in scalding water.

“My father wasn’t an athlete,” Mane said. “My mother was more athletic. She did tennis. But my father’s legs were very strong because he had to stand all day.”

Despite his grueling job, Thierno Mane was a man who craved exercise, his son said.

“He would get up early in the morning and we would work out together,” Mane said. “We did a lot of running together. And later, when he bought a bicycle, we did a lot of bicycling together.”

At age 14, Mane started running track at the New York Armory, a nonprofit that runs youth athletic, educational and community programs, and continued competing at Taft High School in the Bronx. It was there that he drew the attention of Fairleigh Dickinson University jumping coach Leroy Solomon, who is a Taft alumnus and would visit his alma mater in search of promising athletes for FDU, which is in Teaneck, New Jersey.

At FDU, Mane exceeded expectations by becoming a seven-time All-American triple jumper and the university’s “most decorated student-athlete,” a school spokesperson said. And Mane accomplished these athletic feats despite not having on-campus facilities to do all of his outdoor training. He was, however, able to use the facilities at nearby Teaneck High School.

Before transferring to FDU in August 2020, Mane was a freshman at Lincoln University of Missouri. It was while studying out there that Mane, in April 2020, lost his biggest fan.

Thierno Mane, who by then was retired, had come down with a mysterious and persistent cough that got so bad that the paramedics were summoned and he was taken to a hospital, Mane said.

“He was about 67 at the time and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him,” Mane said, noting that this was in the early days of the pandemic. “He got sent home. But he got sicker and was taken back to hospital where he died. It was very quick.”

Mane said his father’s death was devastating. But not long afterward Mane began taking solace in the voice messages his father had left for him. And in May, just before making the U.S. Olympic team, Mane graduated from FDU with a degree in civil engineering.

“I think he would have been very proud,” Mane said of his dad, whom he described as “a religious guy” who studied the Quran but also wanted his kids to have a college education.

Considered a medal contender, Mane got a taste of the limelight on the Fourth of July when he got to throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. And when he flies off to Paris, he will be accompanied by his FDU coaches Solomon and Wesley Stephens.

Salif Mane
Luke Hales/Getty Images
Salif Mane, Paris 2024 Olympic Triple Jump Qualifier for Team USA, throws the ceremonial first pitch before a game between the New York Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 2024 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

The men’s triple jump qualifying rounds take place Aug. 7. The final is Aug. 9.

Mane said he also has family in Paris whom he hopes to see. But, he added, “When I compete, I will also be thinking of my father.”

This story first appeared on NBCNews.com. More from NBC News:

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