Column: Freshman JJ Harel is a track and field prodigy at Chaminade High
Wearing a blue polo shirt, tan shorts and black sneakers, JJ Harel easily fits in as just another freshman walking around the campus of Chaminade High in West Hills. He celebrated his 14th birthday on Tuesday, his teenage sister baking him a cookie cake before he left for school.
Except there’s nothing ordinary about Harel, who has passports from Australia, Israel and the United States. He has sprouted to 6-foot-2, with veins sticking out from his arms and muscles bulging from his biceps even though he weighs a lean 150 pounds and doesn’t lift weights.
Most of his classmates at the Catholic high school have no idea that the mostly quiet, unassuming Jewish kid with blond hair and size 13 feet could be a future Olympian. At a minimum, with his 40-inch vertical leap, he’s going to be supplying plenty of entertaining dunks during freshman basketball games in the winter. First, though, he has to make the team later this month during tryouts.
He won’t have any trouble making the track team, for that is where his future lies. During the summer, he set an AAU Junior Olympics record in North Carolina by clearing 6-foot-5 in the high jump. He also won gold in the triple jump and javelin.
He was given permission to compete in the 18-under competition as a 13-year-old at the Maccabiah Games in Israel this past summer and won gold in the high jump. In the spring, he traveled to Israel and won the national heptathlon for under 16. Overall, he won 27 medals from local, national and international competitions last season — they’re hanging on his bedroom wall.
“I like traveling and going to different competitions and competing in general,” Harel said.
Born to an Israeli American father and an Australian mother, he still has an Australian accent even though he left Sydney when he was 6. A clue to his natural strength and athleticism was discovered as a baby. He kept climbing out of his crib. His parents had to shut the bedroom door at night so he didn’t crawl around the house. When opening the door in the morning, they were careful to open it slowly to make sure it didn’t hit him if he was sleeping nearby on the floor.
At 3, he had a cast on his arm for an injury, but his dad told the doctor it wouldn’t last. Sure enough, two days later, the cast was cracked.
His fearlessness has led to him breaking his left arm three times. He got a concussion at 10 falling over a hurdle. He broke his arm falling off a scooter. He broke his arm again trying to leap over a friend who suddenly ducked.
“I try to jump over something or leap over something,” he said.
Chaminade freshman JJ Harel clears 6-5 in a high jump competition and shows off his vertical leap.
He likes to leap over trash cans, tries to touch ceilings, hanging signs and basketball rims.
Most of his high jumping success has come through his own determination and teaching. He learned the Fosbury Flop watching videos. He set his record going off his right foot even though previously he went off his left foot. He switched because he has a big bump on his left knee from a growth spurt — he grew 9 inches in two years.
Basketball coach Bryan Cantwell didn’t know about Harel’s track background when he showed up to begin basketball workouts but quickly noticed his leaping ability.
“He works super hard, very intense,” Cantwell said. “If he’s not doing well, he gets upset, which is great. He cares about being good.”
The last 13-year-old who could dunk at Chaminade was Conor McCullough, who’d go on to become a world-class hammer thrower.
Harel is a perfectionist and has a competitive streak that makes him want to beat his sisters — they’re 15 and 12 — in card games and video games. He attended Gaspar De Portola Middle School’s highly gifted magnet and is the only Chaminade freshman taking precalculus math.
He’d be playing football this fall if it were his decision, but mom and dad are adamant: no football. So basketball in the winter will be a nice distraction before track takes center stage. His goal would be to reach 6-10 in the high jump as a freshman, but he has gone 44 feet in the triple jump and 21 feet in the long jump, so who knows which event he’ll continue to make leaps and bounds in.
The Olympic Games will be held in Los Angeles in 2028. Would he represent the U.S., Australia or Israel? It’s too early to say.
“There’s a decision to be made as to what he feels is the right country if he is good enough,” his father, Oren, said. “That’s a decision that will come mostly from him. I went to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. I use the word destiny. I said, ‘You’re going to be 19 for the next Olympics here. Maybe it’s meant to be.’ There’s a lot of years until then.”
First, he has to develop into a world-class high jumper. According to Rich Gonzalez of PrepCalTrack.com, the high jump is the toughest individual event to project the future greatness of a teenager because there are so many factors involved, from gaining mental toughness to developing technique, flexibility, speed and explosiveness. The Israeli national record is 7-8¾ and the top current Israeli is 19-year-old Yonathan Kapitolnik, who has gone 7-6½.
There are signs Harel was born to make this journey. He doesn’t get nervous or overwhelmed in pressure situations. He started clapping to help pump up the crowd in North Carolina before setting the record 6-5 high jump.
“I like the adrenaline rush,” he said. ”It gives me an extra boost.”
Sports fans are going to get an adrenaline rush watching Harel’s development over the next four years.
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