John Harper stands 6 feet 7 inches tall and has the look of an athlete. Until very recently, he didn't think he could walk and chew gum at the same time.
Growing up in New Athens, Harper played basketball in junior high and tried the high jump with the track team. But during most of his four years at New Athens High School, the extent of Harper's athletic activities was playing pick-up basketball games with friends.
But after attending a track meeting earlier this spring, Harper has changed his view of himself as an athlete.
Two weeks away from graduation, he is the Class 1A Chester Sectional high jump champion and a medal contender at the state meet, which runs May 24-26 at O'Brien Stadium in Charleston.
Harper's winning jump at the sectional was 6 feet, 1 inch.
"The top nine athletes get medals, and to be able to do that would be a great honor because no New Athens athlete has ever accomplished that. But I'm already looking past that. My goal is to be in the top three," Harper said earlier this week.
"I think top three is very realistic. Of course, a lot depends on how the other athletes are jumping and how many personal records are posted," he added. "Track is a very individualistic sport. It's you out there, and you don't have any teammates to mess you up. It's all you."
So far, Harper has been doing just fine.
After opening the season with a jump of 6 feet to win a meet at Dupo, Harper's performances have steadily improved. At the Cahokia Conference meet, Harper went a regular-season best of 6-7. According to Athletic.net track and field, that jump ties Harper for the top Class 1A jump in the state with three other athletes.
The jump was also only good enough for Harper to place second. Zach Pluff, of Freeburg, won the conference title with a jump of 6-9. Pluff is competing in the Class 2A Salem Sectional on Thursday.
Harper's emergence isn't that surprising to Yellow Jackets assistant coach Molly Works.
"John has trained with the coaches here all year, and he had some success in junior high, so it's not a huge surprise. But I do think that the heights that he has reached recently have come as a surprise, even to him," Works said. "To break the school record, and then for him to increase his height by three inches from his previous PR (personal record), that is amazing.
"I think what really helps John is that he's very good about watching other athletes. Plus he is very coachable, and he understands what he needs to change about his form to improve on each and every jump. I think the sky is the limit for him. Once he gets to college and gains more experience, and more advanced training."
Harper's talent has already earned him attention from college coaches. He said this week that Southern Illinois University Edwardsville has offered him a scholarship, and he is "95 percent sure" that he will join the Cougars' track and field program later this summer.
It all began at a track and field meeting earlier this spring.
"I was walking down the hall with a friend of mine, Max Fowler, and track practice was starting that day. He (asked) me why don't I try out for track. We were walking by the room where they were having the (track) meeting, and he pulled me inside," Harper said. "He said, 'Why don't you go to the first meeting and see if you like it.' After that first meet, I realized that I had a chance to be a pretty good high jumper.
"I had played basketball, and I high jumped a little in junior high. I was pretty average at it. This year, the first couple of meets, I didn't know if I would be any good. I was jumping in some old tennis shoes. They were so old, we had to super glue them to keep them from falling apart."
But even with the worn tennis shoes, it didn't take Yellow Jackets head coach Dennis Works to see the talent and potential in his senior jumper. His form was far from polished, but the results were good from the outset.
"My form is getting better, and I'm getting stronger. I think the reason I'm a pretty good high jumper is because of my jumping ability," Harper said. "If I had better form ... I think that's where college will help me, with my jumping form.
"Right now I'm still jumping a little straight back. It's an unnatural feeling to be flying through the air upside down with your head back. It's something you learn to do, though."
New Athens High School has limited track and field facilities. In order to get actual jumping practice, Harper must travel to Red Bud, where the Musketeers coaching staff allows him to use their mats. A New Athens coach made a high jump bar from materials from his farm for Harper and the rest of the Yellow Jackets jumpers to use.
"Zach (Pluff) is a great jumper. But the thing is that Zach practices the high jump every day. He has a jump coach that he works with every day. I practice at meets," Harper said. "I can work out here (New Athens), but I really don't practice jumping. That makes it a little more difficult. But I've learned to deal with it."
Harper has also learned to deal with the mental aspects of jumping.
"I think competing in the high jump is very tough mentally. The officials call your name, and everyone is watching you. All of the attention is on you," Harper said. "Then if you miss your first two attempts at a certain height, the pressure really builds. You have to stay within yourself and just stay focused on your form and getting over the bar."
Even though he never saw himself as an athlete, Harper now knows his newfound ability will help him make a bigger leap to his future.
"To be able to go to SIUE and compete at the NCAA Division I level, the highest college level there is, that's unbelievable," he said. "I'm anxious to get there, to be able to work with a coach and see what level I can reach."