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Quantum Leap

Rest assured: This is not a work of fiction. It only seems that way.

Long jumper Nafee Harris, who never finished higher than seventh at the state high school meet and once contemplated abandoning his track and field career altogether, has won three national championships—more than anyone in IUP history—and might well add to his total before graduating in May.

It’s the sort of incredible tale that Robert Ripley invariably followed with his catchphrase: Believe it or not. Sometimes even Harris finds it implausible that three national title certificates bearing his name hang in the hallways of Memorial Field House.

“I definitely didn’t predict this,” said Harris, a Psychology major who hopes to work as a children’s counselor. “I wouldn’t have believed you if had you told me this was going to happen. I would’ve laughed at you.”

With good reason. Harris placed seventh in the state as a sophomore at Lancaster’s McCaskey High School, ended his junior year with a thud—he fouled on all three attempts at states—and did not compete as a senior, when he stepped away from sports to focus on academics. A future in track appeared as unlikely as the queen’s inviting Lady Gaga to tea.

Fact is, Harris planned to play football at IUP. He spent long hours lifting weights in preparation, working to improve both his strength and speed. Then, in the spring of 2008, Harris experienced a true eureka moment. He entered the IUP Open on a whim and leaped twenty-five feet, eight inches, nearly a foot beyond the existing school record and two feet past his personal best. Harris was stunned. Even more stunning, a year later he captured an NCAA championship.

“If he gets a little stronger in the next year or two, he’s got enough speed and enough pickup that if things fall right, you might just see him on the international scene.”

Harris first provided a glimpse of his promise by finishing fifth at the 2009 NCAA indoor meet. He followed with a spectacular performance outdoors in San Angelo, Texas. Trailing defending champion David Registe of Alaska Anchorage with one jump remaining, he soared 26-1¾ to wrest the crown from Registe and shatter the IUP record of 24-9¾ set by Jermaine Clayton six years earlier.

Harris rose to the occasion when the pressure was on. It wouldn’t be the last time.

“He’s always in the hunt, and if he’s on, he can win at big-time meets,” says IUP track and field coach Ralph White. “He really excels when he gets to the NCAAs. He takes it up a notch or two.”

Harris proved as much earlier this year when he won more national titles in the span of eleven weeks than any other IUP track and field competitor—ever—has in a career. He leaped 25-7¼ in March at the NCAA indoor meet in Albuquerque, N.M., to eclipse his own school indoor record and humble the competition. In an event where the difference between first and second is often mere fractions of an inch, Harris beat out runner-up Ramon Sparks of Abilene Christian by a full foot.

He then repeated as the NCAA outdoor champion at Charlotte, N.C., in May with a jump of 26-1½, only a quarter-inch off his personal best. Ironically, Harris’s superlative performance came on the heels of a disastrous one at the conference meet: He fouled on all three attempts and failed to reach the finals.

“I was really devastated,” said Harris, who credits one-time IUP volunteer jump coach Kurt Duncan for furthering his development. “But that’s what kind of like pushed me for the nationals. I went in with a whole different mind-set. I was preparing to win, not just preparing to compete.”

Harris finished more than ten inches ahead of runner-up Demietrius Preston of Alaska Anchorage to claim his third NCAA championship and fifth All-America honor (four in long jump, one in the 400-meter relay), more than any male track and field performer in school history. Not bad for a kid who arrived on campus with a modest résumé in the sport.

“I could see the potential was there,” said Carl Frederick, who coached Harris at McCaskey. “But Nafee had really no track background when he came to us. He was only scratching the surface here. Then, he just blossomed after he got to IUP.”

The result: three NCAA championship trophies in less than two years’ time. His coach is convinced Harris can launch himself even farther as a senior and continue his harvest of hardware.

“Last year was a very good year for him. There’s no reason to think this year shouldn’t be even better,” White says. “I think his best days are ahead, let’s put it that way.”

Frederick foresees Harris ruling the event even after he uncorks his last jump for IUP.

“I don’t think there are any limitations on Nafee,” he said. “If he gets a little stronger in the next year or two, he’s got enough speed and enough pickup that if things fall right, you might just see him on the international scene.”

Harris readily admits the Olympics are a long-range goal. What a story it would be if a jumper who once doubted whether he was capable of competing on the collegiate level were to qualify for the 2012 London Games.

“I think if he continues his progression, he’ll have a legitimate shot,” White said. “He’ll definitely get to the trials. You know, if you go twenty-seven feet, which he’s certainly capable of doing, you have a legitimate shot at making the team.”

Harris, who once would’ve laughed had anyone dare suggest he was destined to win an NCAA title, much less three, turns dead serious when the subject of a berth on the Olympic team is broached. Granted, he never pictured himself as a national champion. But poised at the end of a long jump runway in London, his slim frame draped in a red, white, and blue singlet with USA stitched across the chest—does Nafee Harris picture that?

The answer is right there in the front half of a phrase popularized by Robert Ripley: Believe it.

IUP’S Multiple National Champions

Larry McCoy, wrestling 

1975 
1976

167 pounds
167 pounds

Michelle Goodwin, gymnastics

1988
1989

floor exercise
balance beam

Rose Johnson, gymnastics

1989
1989

floor exercise
all-around

Nafee Harris, track and field

2009
2010
2010

long jump
indoor long jump
long jump

More from the Fall-Winter 2010 Issue of IUP Magazine

Reunions Sweet as Capitol Rolls

Reunions Sweet as Capitol Rolls

IUP graduates are reconnecting somewhere at least once a week.

A Sense of Hope

A Sense of Hope

IUP’s Promise Plus program brings Pittsburgh students and their parents to campus for an exercise in imagination.

Above the Caption

Stephenson Hall, Pratt Plaza, Heritage Garden, and a view from the sky

Mentors

Highlights about IUP faculty members, past and present

Namedroppers

Athletic Hall of Fame inductions, sports update, and the Coal Bowl Trophy

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