Column: Freshman JJ Harel is a track and field prodigy at Chaminade High

JJ Harel, wearing a blue polo shirt, tan shorts and black sneakers, fits in easily as another freshman roaming the Chaminade High campus in the West Hills. He celebrated his 14th birthday on Tuesday when his teenage sister baked him a biscuit cake before he left for school.

Except that there is nothing ordinary about Harel, who has passports from Australia, Israel and the United States. He’s grown to 6ft 2, with veins protruding from his arms and muscles bulging from his biceps, despite weighing a meager 150 pounds and not lifting any weights.

Most of his Catholic high school classmates have no idea that the mostly quiet, unassuming 13-foot-tall, blonde-haired Jewish kid could be a future Olympian. At the very least, his 40-inch vertical leap will make for plenty of entertaining dunks during winter freshman basketball games. First, however, he must make the team later this month during friendly matches.

He will have no problem making the track and field team because that is where his future lies. In the summer in North Carolina, he set a record at the AAU Junior Olympics by clearing 6-foot-5 in the high jump. He also won gold in the triple jump and javelin throw.

As a 13-year-old, he was allowed to compete in the 18-year-old competition at last summer’s Maccabiah Games in Israel, winning gold in the high jump. In the spring he traveled to Israel and won the national heptathlon for under 16s. Overall, he won 27 medals at local, national and international competitions last season – they hang on his bedroom wall.

“I like to travel and go to different competitions and generally compete,” said Harel.

JJ Harel, who jumped 6ft 5 in the high jump, is a 14-year-old freshman at Chaminade with a 40-inch vertical jump.

JJ Harel, who jumped 6ft 5 in the high jump, is a 14-year-old freshman at Chaminade with a 40-inch vertical jump.

(Eric Sondheimer/Los Angeles Times)

Born to an Israeli-American father and an Australian mother, he still has an Australian accent despite leaving Sydney when he was 6 years old. As a baby, a clue to his natural strength and athleticism was discovered. He kept climbing out of his cradle. His parents had to close the bedroom door at night to keep him from crawling around the house. When they opened the door in the morning, they made sure to open it slowly to make sure it didn’t hit him if he was sleeping on the floor nearby.

At the age of 3 he had a cast on his arm due to an injury, but his father told the doctor it wouldn’t hold. In fact, the cast cracked two days later.

His fearlessness has led to him breaking his left arm three times. At 10, he suffered a concussion after falling over a hurdle. He broke his arm falling off a scooter. He broke his arm again trying to jump over a friend who suddenly ducked.

“I’m trying to jump over something or jump over something,” he said.


Chaminade newcomer JJ Harel clears 6-5 in a high jump competition, showing off his vertical jump.

He enjoys jumping over trash cans, trying to touch ceilings, hanging signs and basketball rims.

Most of his success in the high jump is due to his own determination and teaching. He learned the Fosbury flop by watching videos. He set his record by jumping off with his right foot, despite having previously come off with his left foot. He switched because he had a large bump on his left knee from a growth spurt – he grew 9 inches in two years.

Basketball coach Bryan Cantwell was unaware of Harel’s career background when he showed up to start basketball practice, but was quick to notice his jumping ability.

“He works super hard, very intensely,” Cantwell said. “When he’s not feeling well, he gets upset, which is great. He cares about being good.”

The last 13-year-old to dunk at Chaminade was Conor McCullough, who would go on to become a world-class hammer thrower.

A perfectionist, Harel has a competitive streak that leads him to beat his sisters – they’re 15 and 12 – at card games and video games. He attended Gaspar De Portola Middle School’s gifted magnet and is the only Chaminade freshman to take pre-calculus in math.

He would play football this fall if it were his choice, but mom and dad are adamant: no football. So basketball will be a nice diversion in the winter before the running track takes center stage. His goal would be to get a 6-10 in the high jump as a freshman, but he’s covered 44ft in the triple jump and 21ft in the long jump, so who knows what competition he’ll continue to make big jumps in.

The Olympic Games will be held in Los Angeles in 2028. Would he represent the US, Australia or Israel? It’s too early to tell.

“A decision has to be made as to what he thinks is the right country if he’s good enough,” his father Oren said. “It’s a decision that will mostly come from him. I was at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. I use the word destiny. I said, ‘You’re going to be 19 by the next Olympics here. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” There are still many years to go.”

First, he must develop into a world-class high jumper. According to Rich Gonzalez of, the high jump is the most difficult single event to project a teenager’s future greatness because of so many factors at play, from gaining mental toughness to developing technique, flexibility, speed and explosiveness. The Israeli national record is 7-8¾ and the best current Israeli is 19-year-old Yonathan Kapitolnik, who went 7-6½.

There are indications that Harel was born for this journey. He doesn’t get nervous or overwhelmed in pressure situations. He started clapping to heat up the North Carolina crowd before breaking the record in the 6-5 high jump.

“I like the adrenaline rush,” he said. “It gives me an extra boost.”

Sports fans will get an adrenaline rush watching Harel’s development over the next four years. Column: Freshman JJ Harel is a track and field prodigy at Chaminade High

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