LINCOLN — Roughly six years ago, James White looked at high jumping as a means to an end: He wanted to dunk a basketball with power and style at Grandview (Mo.) High School.
“Oh, I can dunk,” said White, the Nebraska junior who's around 6-foot tall and one of the athletes NU hopes can win at the Big Ten Track and Field Championships this weekend. He left basketball behind in high school and kept high jumping — for good reason.
He cleared 7 feet as a sophomore in high school — rare air for a 16-year-old. Then he jumped 7 feet, 3 inches. Then, late in his junior season, at a meet near his hometown, White cleared 7-5ĺ. A national high school record. The mark would have put White in the hunt for a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics.
But that jump nearly four years ago is still the best of White's career.
And the guy who actually won the bronze in London, Canada's Derek Drouin, jumps for Indiana. The Olympic silver medalist, Kansas State's Erik Kynard, awaits at the NCAA Championships. And the guy with the best indoor high jump in the United States so far this year, former Husker and Olympian Dusty Jonas, is White's volunteer coach at Nebraska.
White, who transferred to Nebraska after winning the junior college national title at Iowa Central Community College last year, has an easy smile and laid-back demeanor. But a lot of competition — and expectation — awaits.
“My mindset never changes,” White said. “No matter the competition. It doesn't matter what they've done. It's what they're going to do.”
Since jumping 7-5ľ at the Holiday Inn Invitational in early January, White's biggest goal has been to stay healthy. Despite some tendinitis, he's done that.
At the Big Ten meet, held at a giant facility in Geneva, Ohio, just east of Cleveland, White hopes to hang in with Drouin, who's jumped 7-7ľ this year, by clearing his early heights on the first attempts. At meets where two jumpers clear the same height, a winner is determined by the attempts to do so. Jonas and head track and field coach Gary Pepin have instructed White that the fewer attempts it takes to clear lower heights, the more energy he'll have when the entry pool dwindles down to a handful.
White is also trying to curve his path toward the bar, instead of running right at it. In high school and at Iowa Central, White's sheer jumping ability could carry him through. It'll take more technique to win at the Big Ten and NCAA meets.
“He's picked up some habits that he's trying to correct,” Pepin said.
Jonas, who had to miss the 2012 Olympics because of an Achilles' tendon injury, and Pepin, who coached Jonas to a national title in 2008, are the main reasons White said he chose to jump two years at Nebraska. As the No. 1 track prospect out of high school, he signed with Louisville and could have gone “pretty much anywhere” after two years at Iowa Central. He dwindled his picks down to NU and Kansas State, which Kynard's success has turned into a destination for high jumpers.
“I couldn't think of anything I didn't like about Nebraska — besides being cold,” White said. “And coming from Iowa, I couldn't complain about that. I felt a better connection with Coach Pepin and Dusty. Having a professional athlete coach me — he knows a lot more about it than others.”
Said Pepin: “He's better than even I thought he'd be. Just a great kid.”
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