As the top hurdler on the St. Francis High track and field team, James Knowles has found his niche in the event where the track and the field most begin to blur into one.
"It's kind of like a combination of field and track," Knowles' fellow Golden Knights hurdler TJ Tree says. "For jumpers, they just focus on jumping and getting more spring and working on form and sprinters are just speed, but hurdles is both. It's all form and it's all speed."
Requiring the foot speed and quickness of a sprinter, but also the agility, timing and athleticism of a jumper — not to mention the focus and coordination necessary to blend it all together on the fly — hurdling is certainly a unique sport and it's become a one-of-a-kind thrill for Knowles.
"It's a great event," says Knowles, a junior. "I don't see any other event that's better than that."
It's a passion that's taken Knowles quite far this season — all the way to tonight's CIF Southern Section Masters Meet at Cerritos College in Norwalk, where Knowles is set to compete against the top runners across all divisions in the 300-meter intermediate hurdles with an eye on advancing to the state championships.
"It was a definite goal for me to get to finals and I'm planning on qualifying for state," said Knowles, who is also an alternate in the 110 high hurdles. "Pretty much, the 300 is a mental race, so I know I can probably put a little bit more than I have. If I PR, then I'll definitely qualify."
The personal-record of 38.38 seconds Knowles set in the 300 hurdles at the CIF Southern Section Division III finals on Saturday at Cerritos College, where he finished ninth, was enough to qualify him for today's Masters meet. He also set a PR of 14.62 in the 100 hurdles, missing the placement cut for Masters in that event by just one spot.
Tonight, Knowles will have to make either the top-five cutoff or a threshold of 38.26 in the 300 hurdles to move on to state. Should he get a chance to compete in the 110 hurdles, a top-five finish or a 14.41 mark would be required for advancement.
Golden Knights Coach Pat Donovan says Knowles definitely has it in him to drop more time and is confident he'll bring his best effort.
"This year I've seen that in every race that he's won," Donovan says. "He's not willing to accept less than his best in any performance."
Knowles began running track in grade school and took up the hurdles when he arrived at St. Francis after being influenced by his father, James Knowles, Sr., a four-year varsity letter winner in hurdling events at USC from 1983-86.
"Looking at all [his] achievements, all the stories he's given me, it encouraged me and let me look into hurdles," the younger Knowles says. "I tried them out and I enjoyed them.
"The hurdles are pretty much an all-technical event. You can have all the speed in the world, but if you don't know how to hurdle or you don't have the right technique, you'll be the slowest hurdler."
Knowles qualified for the Division III preliminaries in the 110 hurdles last season, but suffered a disappointing setback there. Lined up in the lane next to Agoura star James Cabral, Knowles found his path over the course of the race cluttered by several hurdles knocked over into his lane from Cabral's, two of which hit Knowles, eliminating any chance of him qualifying.
"That kind of threw him off and definitely discouraged him a little bit," says Donovan, who unsuccessfully looked into filing a protest against the result. "We just chalked it up to experience and I told James next year he was going to be going against Cabral again and that the one way to combat that is if you're right next to him, you can't get hit by his hurdle."
Knowles took his disappointment into the offseason and channeled it into motivation, intensifying his strength training leading up to the track season and working extensively on conditioning and technique during the season.
"He's probably one of the most focused athletes I know of, as far as training and competing goes," Tree says of Knowles. "He's always motivated, but this year he's bigger, faster and stronger."
The results of his offseason rededication were evident early on, as Knowles impressed in his Mission League season debut at Harvard-Westlake on March 4 with a double win in the 110 (14.70) and the 300 (40.48).
"After that, we definitely saw what he was going to be capable of this season," Donovan says. "We've been kind of chomping away at the bit just trying to take away tenths [of a second] here and there to get ready for league and CIF, ultimately."
As the season went on, promising performances continued to roll in, including a fourth-place finish in the 110 hurdles at the prestigious Arcadia Invite on April 8 and culminating with winning two titles at the league finals at L.A. Valley College on May 5. At that meet, Knowles set a then-PR of 14.77 in the 110 hurdles and ran a 39.43 in the 300 hurdles.
Next up were the Division III prelims May 14 at Estancia, where Knowles easily put his past struggles behind him.
"Looking at my competition, I recognized a few of them," says Knowles, who won both his heats and was third overall in the 110 hurdles in 14.64. "I understood how they were going to run, so I pretty much focused on my own race and set my own goals to break my PR. I knew getting a personal record or breaking my time I would easily qualify into finals."
Donovan's past prognostication proved correct at CIF finals, as Knowles was indeed lined up next to Cabral in the 110 and 300. This time, he learned from past misfortunes.
"James came out with that in mind and definitely kept the distance [closer]," Donovan says. "Cabral ran a great race, but James was just a little bit behind him, at arm's length, so to speak."
The first obstacle for a beginner hurdler to overcome isn't on the track, it's in one's head.
"You have to love running the hurdles, you can't be scared, or it's just going to be a terrible experience," Knowles says. "I was afraid at first, but I understand the basics and I got used to it right away. It was very exciting for me."
Knowles has long since conquered the fear and recently banished the specter of past shortcomings en route to becoming a league champion and CIF finalist. Tonight he'll be focused on taking the next step towards representing the Golden Knights at state.
"All the work that I've done throughout the year is going to be put into this and all it is now is mental," Knowles says. "I just have to put in all my effort."