It was a freakish moment that remains hard to believe. On Feb. 3, at an all-comers meet at Arcadia High, Dorsey senior Portejoie Tshiaba cleared 7 feet in the high jump.
He had yet to receive formal training in the event.
“Never happened in the history of track and field,” Dorsey Hall of Fame track coach Ralph Tilley said.
That claim would be difficult to confirm, but what’s known for sure is that it was his third competition since deciding to try the sport in the last semester of his high school career after playing basketball.
He wore skate shoes and cleared 6 feet 2 inches in his first meet. He went 6 feet in his second meet. Then high jump coach Steve Lang offered suggestions and a little coaching: He showed Tshiaba a video of Canadian champion Derek Drouin.
“You can be this,” Lang told him. “I put up the bar to 7 feet. ‘This is what I cleared back in the day. You are better than me.’ You have to believe it to achieve it.”
Except nobody was crazy enough to predict a 7-foot jump so soon.
“Did I think he he was going to jump 7 feet? No,” Lang said. “I told Coach Tilley he’s going to do 6-8.”
Tilley didn’t even know Tshiaba’s last name when he showed up at the all-comers meet. Tshiaba cleared 6-2 and the bar went up two inches each height until 7 feet.
Tshiaba, known as P.J., returned to Dorsey after his achievement, and he said classmates were surprised. Who wouldn’t be?
For three years, he played basketball off and on, never finishing a season. He was good at jumping and dunking.
As a freshman, he went out for track for one day when all the basketball players were told they had to try out. Lang missed the workout and Tshiaba never returned.
Born in Congo and having lived briefly in Canada, he said he came to the United States when he was 10. He’s 6-3, a sturdy 185 pounds, speaks French and possesses good enough jumping skills that his elbows have been seen above the basketball rim.
It was fate that brought Tshiaba and assistant track coach Ken Matthews together during the Christmas break. He was visiting Matthews’ house with another track athlete, hoping to borrow a bicycle.
For nearly an hour, Matthews talked to Tshiaba trying to persuade him to come out for track. He remembered seeing his jumping skills and envisioned him as a high jumper and long jumper.
Finally, they came to an agreement. He could borrow the bike as long as he at least gave track a try.
When he first started, Tshiaba tried the high jump in January using a scissors technique. Then he switched to going over the bar from his back. He had no real style; he was competing on natural physical ability.
“I didn’t know what I got myself into,” he said.
But once he cleared 7 feet, the realization came to everyone that Tshiaba had a real gift. And people were freaking out.
“What school are you from?”
“What’s your name?”
“How long have you been high jumping?”
Dorsey coaches’ phones started buzzing, with college coaches around the country inquiring and seeking to know more about Tshiaba — who also went 22 feet, 5 inches, in the long jump without much coaching.
Lang missed Tshiaba’s 7-foot high jump effort. He was at a funeral. He got a text from Tilley and didn’t believe the number he saw.
“There was no way in the world did I think this guy would go 7 feet,” Tilly said. The national high school record is 7-7.
Now Tshiaba has to be mentioned as a state title contender in the high jump. He says he wants to clear 7-5. And who’s going to doubt him since Lang is pretty good at coaching jumpers.
Tshiaba is the seventh 7-footer he has coached.
“It felt great. It felt easy,” Tshiaba said. “It was amazing.”