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Many student-athletes at Penn talk about setting the bar high and pushing themselves to reach new heights. For men’s track and field rising-junior high jumper Kampton Kam, that bar is as literal as it gets. 

As an athlete from Singapore, Kam has long had his eyes fixed on the 2.22-meter national record established by high jumper Wong Yew Tong in 1995. Reflecting on his prospects on a sunny morning, Kam seemed optimistic that — given the right conditions — he could best that height. 

“If I'm injury-free and I'm pain-free, that's when I jump the best,” he said. “On a good day, I think I could break the 2.22m record.”

Despite many good days, Kam’s high jump career has been anything but injury-free. From a lung collapse to a bone injury his freshman year, the path to Ivy League champion and NCAA Regionals qualifier has been long and circuitous. Yet, as he finishes up a strong sophomore season, his determination and love for the sport seem set to propel him on an ever higher trajectory. 

Assistant Director of Track and Field and coach Joe Klim, who has helped Kam work towards his “lofty goals,” recalls how strong of an impression the athlete made when he first arrived at Penn. Klim had previously been impressed by videos of Kam competing, but it took seeing him in person to realize just how high that level of performance was. 

“Literally the first day I saw him, I was like, you have to be kidding,” Klim said. “This kid is different. He is good. He is good.”

A 'true love'

Kam’s enthusiasm for sports was clear from a young age. He tried out swimming, cycling, and rock climbing, but it wasn’t until age nine that he landed on the event that would go on to alter the course of his college aspirations. 

Kam was participating at a camp that included a range of track and field activities such as sprints and jumps. Not all events sparked Kam’s interest — he recalls running to the bathroom to hide from participating in the throws rotation.

Next was high jump. Kam cleared the first height, then the second height. Two months later, he competed at Singapore’s National School Games in the age group above him — and won. 

His mother, Carolyn Kam, said she wasn’t surprised when her son immediately took the initiative in dedicating his time to high jump. “He found his true love,” she said.

At the age of 15, Kam asked to travel to Australia for a training program in 97-degree weather. He reflected that his parents have always supported him in traveling across the world for training opportunities and competitions, from Argentina to China. 

“When I told them I really love track, they gave 100 percent support,” he said. 

That support proved to be well-founded. Kam quickly ascended through the ranks in high school, gathering awards and setting the under-20 national record. By 2019, he was within the top 35 high jumpers in his age group in the world. However, unlike many student-athletes who build directly on their high school victories heading into college, Kam put his efforts on pause for another type of training: military service. 

Upon turning 18, all male Singaporean citizens must complete two years of National Service in the armed forces, civil defense forces, or police force. Kam, who enlisted directly after high school, said that training helped him develop mental fortitude. Exercises included carrying heavy backpacks and marching long distances, and recruits had to be awake by 5 a.m. or face the consequences.

“It trains you into an endurance mindset,” Kam said. “Every step is one step closer to your destination, completing the task.” 

Transitioning from the military back to high jump training was not easy. Kam highlighted that athletic training is more targeted, focusing on specific movements and fast-twitch muscles. Returning to the sport was a process of redeveloping those capabilities in time for competition. 

Yet in 2022, Kam sustained a lung collapse requiring surgery, devastating his hopes for a strong return. 

The news came shortly before the Southeast Asian Games were set to begin in Vietnam, and Kam was determined to compete despite his collapsed lung. Carolyn recalled that when he was sitting in the doctor’s office, he said that if he couldn’t fly, he would find a way to travel from Singapore to Vietnam by land — a 40-hour drive. 

Kam eventually accepted the need to step back from high jump for the surgery. When he woke up from the operation, only three months remained until the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England. That was all the time he needed. Kam worked out a solution with his surgeon and physiotherapist to recover, focusing on diligence and consistency.

“I worked on it every day to learn how to breathe, learn how to move again,” he said. 

Within a couple months, he was training again in preparation for the Commonwealth Games. Although he wasn’t at full health, he was able to place 12th. He entered his freshman year at Penn ready to take on the world of the NCAA — a whole new world both culturally and academically. 

Transitioning to college 

Arriving at Penn, Kam adjusted to a blend of new challenges as both an international student and a recruited athlete. He acclimatized to the features of being an athlete in the United States — switching out rice and noodles as his source of carbs for “burritos, chips, and burgers.” 

He also found himself training and competing alongside a team for the first time. In addition to daily three-hour practices, Penn’s track and field team frequently eats dinner and spends time outside of class together, as well as traveling to various universities almost every weekend.

“When I was back at home in Singapore, I was training alone,” Kam said. “At Penn, it’s kind of the opposite.”

Kam emphasized that the team dynamic allows for “constant learning” from each other. High jump athletes share an enthusiasm for nitpicking the most granular aspects of their performance, down to a single step that could determine the difference between clearing the bar and falling short.  

“It’s really fun to have teammates that are as obsessed as you about these kinds of things,” he said. 

Balancing academics with a rigorous training schedule has also been a challenge. Kam, who is in the Wharton School, recalled one professor who said that he would fail Kam if he didn’t take the first midterm — which coincided with the Asian Games. Kam ended up switching out of the class and flying to China for the Games, where he competed against world-class high jumpers such as Mutaz Essa Barsham and Woo Sang-hyeok. 

Kam’s arguably largest obstacle began only a few weeks into his freshman fall semester. He started off strong, breaking the Singaporean indoor record at his first and second meets. He then sustained a bone injury that largely took him out for the rest of the indoor season. 

In February 2023, he tried to make a comeback at the Ivy League Heptagonal Indoor Track & Field Championships but scored a “no height” — when an athlete jumps below a valid score. It was Kam’s first time receiving that designation. 

“It definitely affects everyday life when you’re not able to train and do the thing that you love so much,” Kam said. 

Klim, reflecting on the high jumper’s injuries, said that Kam’s talent means that he holds both potential for both enormous success and risk. 

“He’s really able to do things at a high level, which you have to be careful with, because he’s just able to overdo it,” Klim said.

Kam’s outdoor season just recently came to a close, with his biggest achievements being a 2024 Ivy League Heptagonal title that he earned with a 2.18m jump, and his tying of the Singaporean indoor national record with a jump of 2.20m in early February. On May 24, he competed in Kentucky at the NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships for the east region and jumped 2.14m — a score that ties him in fourth place in Penn’s history of outdoor records. 

Coming off a season of new wins and broken records, Kam’s eyes remain fixed on that target of 2.22m. Beyond that, he hopes that the bar might one day be set even higher at 2.33m, which is the Olympic standard for men’s high jump.

The student-athlete is also in the midst of reconciling his high jump goals with the reality that he cannot continue performing at the same high intensity, or level of commitment, forever. The time may eventually come to “hang up the spikes and transition to a career,” he said. 

But in the meantime, Kam is pushing toward his goals with the steady certainty born from years of training, injury, and recovery. 

“I’ve done a lot of competitions,” Kam said. “I know what I need to do at this point in time.”

Sports Editor Vivian Yao contributed reporting to this article.