The Sky’s his Limit
Dakarai Hightower has grown into a high-jumping phenom
LCC high jumper Dakarai Hightower recently broke the Lane Community College high jump record and was the 2012 USATF Junior Olympic champion when he cleared 7-3. (Brian Davies/The Register-Guard)
By Chris Hansen
Two years after first leaping onto the national stage, a high jumper with Division I skills and a fitting last name is trying to find his way back into the spotlight.
Dakarai Hightower, the 2012 U.S. Junior Olympic champion from Tacoma, has resurfaced at Lane Community College this spring, and the 19-year-old freshman hasn’t missed a beat.
The 6-foot-3 Hightower broke the 38-year-old Lane record when he cleared 7 feet, ¼ inch during the Oregon Relays on April 19 at Hayward Field, then reset his own record just five days later when he went over 7-1 ½ during the Titan Twilight meet at LCC.
And neither mark comes close to his personal best of 7-3, a height he cleared to win the Junior Olympic meet in Baltimore the summer after his senior year of high school.
“It feels good to get back up there and be at the high heights again,” said Hightower, who will be competing today in the OSU High Performance meet at the Whyte Track & Field Center in Corvallis. “I’m just out here having fun.”
Hightower was the top high jump prospect in the nation as senior at Curtis High School in 2012, but it was no secret his grades wouldn’t get him into a top school, so recruiters quickly backed off.
Not wanting to start his NCAA eligibility clock, High-tower took the 2012-13 year off from school “to get my mind right,” he said. “I needed a growth year, so to speak.”
However, he didn’t take the year off from competing.
Hightower crushed the field at the Junior Olympics meet that year. His winning bar was 5 ¼ inches higher than second-place finisher Johnathan Addison, who now competes for North Carolina State, and was close to the Junior Olympic meet record of 7-3 ¾.
“Without a doubt, there are very few 18- or 19-year-olds doing that,” said Grady O’Connor, the director of track and field at Lane. “We’re talking just a handful. It was pretty impressive.”
Under the direction of coach Nate Wilford from the Flying AJ’s track club in Tacoma, Hightower spent 2013 competing unattached. He won the high jump at the Oregon Relays with a mark of 6-10 ¾ and then cleared 7-1 to win the Oregon Twilight meet.
“I just dedicated myself to training,” Hightower said.
Now he’s trying to improve his profile.
Because of his grades, Hightower knew if he wanted to land at a Division I school eventually, he would first have to find a two-year college where he could get his associate’s degree.
Through a former high school teammate, Hightower was put in touch with O’Connor, who has built Lane into a regional power in his 17 years at the school.
“I looked at some of the athletes that Lane’s produced and it was a good fit for me,” Hightower said. “It had a nice team feeling, team atmosphere. I was always kind of the lone wolf in high school. Lane just has a really good team aspect.”
That will certainly come into play in the weeks ahead as the Titans get ready for the NWAACC South Region meet on May 10 in Gresham, and then the NWAACC championship meet in Spokane May 19-20, where the Titans will be going for their second straight title.
But even bigger things could be ahead for Hightower, who is the conference’s high jump leader by almost seven inches.
O’Connor, who is personally coaching Hightower, is gearing up his protégé for a run at 7-4 ½ — the qualifying standard for the 2014 U.S. Track & Field Outdoor Championships — starting today in Corvallis.
“OSU is his one last meet where the adrenaline should be flowing, because there will be other guys there that can beat him,” O’Connor said. “And that’s pretty unusual for him. Regionals, NWAACCs, he’s in a class by himself. Second place could be 6-6 and he’s opening at 6-9. That’s a whole different climate when you’re competing.”
It’s a climate O’Connor wants Hightower to take more seriously. Both O’Connor and Hightower point to the Oregon Relays two weeks ago when Hightower went off script and chose not to open until the bar reached 7-0 ¼. Though he set the school record, he also finished third and cleared only the one height.
“Coach wasn’t too happy about that one,” Hightower said with a laugh.
“Dakarai came to us with his résumé, he came to us with really sound technique, but what we’re trying to get going is the mental aspect and I think he needs some growth there,” O’Connor said. “He’s just got to get more focused on winning. We’re trying to get him mentally tough and focused.”
Both agree that, at the very least, Hightower is nearing a PR. He came close to clearing 7-3 ¼ at the Titan Twilight, barely brushing the bar on his final attempt. That gives O’Connor hope that the U.S. qualifying mark might also be near.
“He could stumble into it the next three or four weeks,” O’Connor said. “That’s the kind of freakish talent that he has.
“At the Titan Twilight, a low-key meet, by himself, just feeling loose and light, he almost jumps 7-3 ¼. He has the physical gift to do that on any given day.”
And for at least one more season, he’ll be doing it at Lane.
“He has the physical gift to do that on any given day.”
— Grady O’connor, Lane track & Field coach, on his prize freshman just missing at 7-31/4