by C. Jemal Horton

Moments after he went crashing into the sand, John Gaither didn’t need a track and field judge’s tape measure to tell him he’d just executed a scintillating triple jump.

“I could hear people’s ‘Oooohs’ and ‘Ahhhs,’” the Lake Norman High School senior said, “so I felt pretty confident that it was a good mark. As soon as I did it, I knew it was big.”

Gaither had flown a personal-best 45 feet, 10.5 inches, good enough to secure a second-place finish at the Class 4A state track and field championships in February. The performance also allowed Gaither to earn Mooresville Weekly’s 2010-11 Boys Indoor Track and field Athlete of the Year honors.

“Before going to the meet, I was only doing around 44 feet,” Gaither said. “But it was great to jump my best at a time like that. I had been working for this for a long time, and it just came. It’s something I’ll always remember.”

Although the state-meet performance was Gaither’s best in the triple jump, he’s made a habit of attaining rarefied air over the years. Standing just 5-8 and weighing 145 pounds, Gaither dunks a basketball with ease. In fact, he’s been doing it since eighth grade, two years before he moved to Mooresville from his native Long Island, N.Y.

He didn’t take up track and field jumping, however, until the spring of his junior year at Lake Norman High.

“I just one day went up to Coach (Jay) Keener and asked him if I could do triple jump,” Gaither recalled. “I had watched it on a couple of televised meets and thought it was pretty cool, so I thought I’d ask him.

“It took me a few weeks to get it down. My first jump ever was, like, 33 feet. But a week later, I was hitting in the 40s and getting first (place) at meets. It was surreal.”

Gaither also has competed in sprints for the Wildcats, and he’s registered some strong performances, running the 100 meters in 11.2 seconds and the 200 in 23.2. But jumping is his passion.

“I like coming out here and working hard at jumping,” he said. “I love the training that goes into it. There’s no better feeling than going through a hard workout and then watching yourself improve.”

Gaither has hopes of continuing his jumping career in college, where he plans to major in finance and become an investment banker.

“I’ve talked to a few coaches about jumping in college, like Penn State and Duquesne,” he said. “I can always walk on if I feel like I’m developing well. I just want to see how far I can go as a jumper.”