Standing at the east end of Franklin Field, Maalik Reynolds calmly removes his warm-ups on a balmy 65-degree day to reveal a red- and blue-striped singlet with ‘PENN’ emblazoned across the front.
It’s the Saturday of Penn Relays — a time reserved for the creme de la creme of the track and field world.
By now, the east grandstand at Franklin Field is buzzing with excitement, following every jump with a roar. To see a local athlete is no doubt exciting, but to witness a 6-foot-7 freshman holding his own in the finals of the high jump is nothing short of phenomenal.
The best high jumpers — Reynolds included — are poetry in motion. They have the power to reach a full sprint in no more than a few strides and the delicate flexibility to contort their body so that for a brief moment, they float over the bar.
On this Saturday, Reynolds misses his first two attempts at 2.16 meters, but the failure does not deter him. He remains calm and nails the third, continuing to clear the bar as others clip it.
Then, at 2.22 meters (7’3.25), Reynolds begins his customary approach from the right side with short staccato and exaggerated arm swings. With his eighth step, he breaks out into an elongated sprint, pushes off his left foot and propels himself over the bar, effortlessly.
Reynolds only began high jumping in eighth grade in his native Atlanta, but not by choice.
“My eighth grade science teacher and basketball coach made me,” Reynolds said. “I was sitting in the gym one day and he said, ‘You better go high jump.’ I said no, but he made me.”
In his first meet as a sophomore in high school, he cleared 6’6”, progressing to 7’ as a junior and 7’2.5” as a senior.
During his time at Westminster High School, he began working with Thomas McCants, a retired high jumper and former American record holder who finished twelfth at the 1987 World Championships.
“He didn’t know how much talent he actually had,” McCants recalled. “The biggest hurdle was getting him to believe more and more in his talent. The great thing about him is that he takes instructions really, really well.”
In only his first season at Penn, Reynolds has exceeded all expectations and then some. During the winter season he won the Indoor Heptagonal and IC4A championships, setting the school record in the process. During the spring, he has broken his own record three times and became the first Penn high jumper to win at the Relays in 56 years.
And Reynolds keeps raising the bar.
At last weekend’s Heps, Reynolds cleared 2.28 meters (7’ 5.75”) on his third attempt. That puts him just a little more than an inch from the Ivy record.
“[The practice before] was probably one of the worst practices at Penn. It was really frustrating. I couldn’t get over seven feet, but I was able to come out and set a [personal record],” Reynolds said.
That clearance was the second-best of any collegiate athlete this year and is the 13th-best jump in the world this year.
“Maalik has the talent to break the world record,” McCants said. “Maalik can compete on an international level now.”
McCants even compared Reynolds to the best high jumpers the world has ever seen.
“He has the body build of Brian Stanton, he has the explosiveness of Hollis Conway, and he has the speed of Sotomayor, the world record holder. Maalik has that ability when he puts it all together.”
In fact, McCants believes that Reynolds has the capability to clear 2.32m, which would surpass the ‘A’ qualifying standard needed to compete at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Penn hasn’t had an Olympian since 1932, when Bill Carr completed a double, winning the 400 meters and running a leg on the 4x400-meter relay while setting world records in each event.
But the Quakers’ current unassuming freshman is taking it one step at a time.
“I have [thought about jumping after college], but I’ll focus on it when it gets there,” Reynolds said.
This weekend, Reynolds will head to Princeton, N.J., to compete at the IC4A championships before rounding out his season with Eastern Regionals, a trip to the NCAA Championships and the United States National Track and Field championships.
It has been a magical season, and the freshman is still only preparing to take flight.
“I am jumping my best at the right time,” Reynolds said “I expected to jump my best at this time. It’s all coming together.”
One can only assume he will continue to fly to new heights.
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