Raising the bar

James Costello
Sports Editor

(Originally published on April 18 in the Pilot News print edition)

For all the accolades he’s already collected, there’s no really remarkable origin story to Nathan Patterson’s high jumping career.
To hear him tell it, the Plymouth junior — who has broken and rebroken PHS’ school record several times over as well as track records around the state, concluded his sophomore season with a third-place finish at last year’s state finals and set a new benchmark for himself with a 7’2” clearance at the Midwest Prep Track and Field Invitational at Marian University in Indianapolis over the weekend — was simply looking to try something new after a failed experiment in golf.
The fact that his golf game wasn’t the strongest turned out to be a bit a blessing in disguise, because he’s since transformed himself into a truly elite athlete in his chosen sport.
“I started high jumping in seventh grade because I sucked at golf in sixth grade,” Patterson summed up succinctly. “Right away in seventh grade, at the first meet, I broke our middle school record. Right off the bat, I knew that I was able to do something a little special.”
Patterson has been breaking records ever since.
As a sophomore transfer from Rochester, Patterson wasted little time breaking his new program’s record. His first meet with the Pilgrims was an indoor event, and he broke Plymouth’s previous mark of 6’8” in that very first outing. With that goal accomplished, Patterson set his sights on clearing 7 feet, which he promptly did a few weeks later at the Goshen Relays, tying a Goshen track record that was more than 30 years old in the process. Saturday’s 7’2” mark at the Midwest Prep Invite also represented a new meet record at a regional invitational that pulls in athletes from Illinois and Kentucky as well as from around the state of Indiana.
“I’ve coached four different sports over the years, and he’s really the only athlete that I’ve been around that is an elite athlete,” said PHS track coach John Barron. “He really is. We’ve had great athletes, don’t get me wrong, but this kid is on the national level. If he stays healthy you’re looking at a kid that could really bring a lot of attention to himself as a high jumper. He’s 16 years old, and he’s already jumped over 7 feet. That puts him in the top one percent of our country.”
In fact, Patterson’s 7’2” leap last Saturday ranks him second in the entire country according to Athletic.net. He’s already in some truly rarified air but still believes he has a lot of ceiling left. He’s set goals for himself to win the IHSAA state finals the next two seasons, and he’s certainly capable, barring any injuries. He hopes to consistently clear 7 feet this year. So far, so good on that count, and he’s set himself a new goal of clearing 7’4” this season.
That goal-oriented thinking is partly what makes Patterson so good.
It can be a bit lonely at the top, and it’s often hard for the gifted junior to find people to truly push him. In order to stay fresh for the elite heights he routinely clears, Patterson doesn’t even start until the bar reaches 6’4” or 6’6”, after most high jumpers have already finished. But even with little competition to be found most meets, Patterson continues to drive himself to greater and greater heights.
“A lot of times I’m starting after everybody is done so I’ve just gotten to the point where I’m setting goals for myself and trying to accomplish these goals. I just keep readjusting my goals after I reach them,” said Patterson. “Most goals I set, I know I can reach even though this year my goal is to jump 7’4” by the end of the year. I know I can do it. I’m almost there. I’ve got two out of the four inches down.
“I just keep trying to keep going up.”
“Every time that he jumps, everybody else is probably going to be out of the competition in this area,” echoed Barron. “There may be a couple kids... but Nathan is not even going to start jumping in the competition until 6 feet, 6 inches. We’re doing that because when he starts jumping at 7 feet it takes a lot of energy out of him so he needs to save some of that energy to perform at that level.
“He’s really self-motivated anyway. I’ve always said this about Nathan — he owns the high jump. He’s a student of the high jump. He knows his stuff. I really don’t coach him. I really just try and stay in his head mentally and keep him sharp and try and keep him from getting too distracted, and all the college coaches that are contacting him now.”
If Patterson’s origins weren’t the most inspired, his first meeting with his PHS coach was equally underwhelming.
Patterson first met Barron during a school visit prior to his sophomore year. While Rochester feeds into Plymouth’s sectional field, a slight meniscus tear had limited Patterson in his freshman season with the Zebras, so Barron didn’t know a whole lot about him. When the lanky freshman let Barron know he wanted to focus exclusively on the high jump, the Pilgrims coach confesses he didn’t respond positively.
But after seeing Patterson jump for the first time, Barron quickly reversed field.
“When I first met him he really let me know that he was only going to high jump. It’s kind of a funny story because I didn’t know him very well, and I didn’t take that very well as a head coach,” Barron recalled.
“I was going to make him hurdle or run the 400, maybe throw the discus. I wasn’t going to just allow him to high jump until I watched him actually high jump in practice. Our school record at the time was 6’7”, and he was telling me that he wanted to break the school record as soon as possible. One of our first practices outside I was training him just like everybody else, making him run, and he was chomping at the bit to show me his ability in high jump. Well, it’s about 35 degrees outside and I really didn’t want to stay out there and watch him jump, but he wanted to prove to me how good he was. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. I think he went 6’6” in sweats in about 35 degree weather the very first time I watched him jump.”
“It was pretty funny what had happened between us when I first met him,” said Patterson of his first meeting with Barron. “I was going through the school because I was just moving there — coming through meeting teachers and figuring out where places were — and they took me to meet the track coach. So when I went and met Coach Barron he asked me what I do for tack, and I told him I high jump only. He told me ‘Well, that’s going to change. That doesn’t fly here. We do more than just one event.’ Then as the season came up the next year, the first practice he didn’t really believe me that I could warm up at 6 foot. So he set the bar at 6 foot, and I cleared it by about eight inches. He then realized, yeah, this kid might be high jump only.”
If Barron had to eat a little humble pie, it certainly hasn’t bothered him since.
The longtime PHS coach admits that mentoring Patterson has been a unique experience, and he’s reached out for guidance from some college coaches to learn the best approach to do so. Patterson has a bright future ahead of him, and Barron wants to give the young athlete the best possible shot to realize it.
“We’re only going to allow him to jump twice a week, and that’s including competition. So if we have two track meets in a week he’s not jumping in practice. We’ll do drills, but we’re not going to jump him,” explained Barron. “I’ve gotten a lot of really good advice from people that I’ve sought out — collegiate level coaches — because this is new for me too, and I just really don’t want to screw him up. I am a football coach that coaches track and field so I know my capabilities and limitations as a track coach, but I’m also not stupid. I’ve been around athletics a long time, and I have no ego in this. I just want him to do the best that he can.”
The bar keeps going up for Patterson, and the sky seems to be the young high jumper’s only limit. To watch him go to work is a thing of beauty, and when Patterson competes, it can produce the kind of excitement rarely found in high school track and field. Barron is encouraging fans to come out and see something special for themselves.
“It’s a rarity where you can watch anyone — even at the professional or Olympic level — high jump to over 7 feet,” Barron said. “To have a kid in this community where you can come out... and watch him jump will be, I think, a good thing for our community. He’s really amazing. I don’t like to single out kids, but he is that good. He is a special athlete.”