Scott Fowler

Charlotte 49ers’ Trey McRae leaping toward his Olympic goal

To make the U.S. Olympic team, the Charlotte 49ers’ Trey McRae must soar like he never has before.

A gifted high jumper, McRae has written quite a success story just to earn a spot in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, which are being held in Eugene, Ore. McRae’s event – the high jump – holds its preliminaries Friday and then the finals Sunday.

McRae, who is 6-foot-3, must clear a bar more than a foot above his own height, and also finish in the top three to make the team. It honestly would be an upset if McRae earns a spot. But his potential is so great that he does have a chance to become the first U.S. Olympian ever from UNC Charlotte who was a student-athlete at the school (Olympic boxer Calvin Brock also graduated from Charlotte but did not play a sport for the 49ers).

McRae’s confidence? That’s pretty great, too. On a scale of 1-100, he said right now he’s at “200.”

“My expectation is to be able to come back and be able to say that I’m headed to Rio,” McRae said, referring to the Summer Olympics in Brazil that will begin in early August.

McRae could always jump. At age 15, when he was 5-8, he was already dunking a basketball.

But track and field was not on his radar while growing up in Laurinburg and attending Scotland High.

“To be honest, as a child, I never thought about the Olympics,” McRae said. “I thought I’d be playing in the NBA Finals.”

But McRae wasn’t recruited in basketball. By age 17, he was a senior planning on attending UNC Charlotte as a regular student. With a few months of high school remaining, he took a coach’s advice and came out as a lark to track practice.

He practiced the high jump for one day. The coach gave him one piece of advice: “Pretend like you’re going up to dunk a basketball, and then look backwards at me.”

The “look backwards” part was so that McRae would flop backwards over the bar. And with that rudimentary technique in place, McRae won that first track meet after one day of practice by clearing 6-foot-2. A week later, in another meet, he jumped 6-8 – and that was the best mark by any North Carolina high school jumper so far that season.

An ‘amazing development’

That week of high school changed the game for McRae – literally. He no longer thought of himself as a frustrated basketball player. After one of his high school coaches called 49ers track and field head coach Bob Olesen, McRae was suddenly being recruited (he’s also a very good long jumper and triple jumper but did not make the Olympic Trials in either of those events).

Olesen, originally a high school football player, had a similar late start in track and field and understood McRae’s journey.

“We do find these stories,” Olesen said. “At the high school level, it’s not terribly unusual. But once Trey got to Charlotte, he has had amazing development. He has all the pieces necessary to become an incredible high jumper, and there’s still a lot of potential there.”

In the recent Conference USA meet, McRae won a startling three events – high jump, long jump and triple jump. That was despite practicing for the triple jump only twice all season. Olesen has had to manage McRae’s workouts carefully, owing to some chronic tendinitis for McRae.

But McRae had a stellar senior season – he finished third in the nation at the NCAA championships, which was the highest-ever finish by a 49er individual at that meet. He has been a five-time All-American for Charlotte as well, and just graduated with business degree. He is a rare thing at Charlotte – an athlete who has just finished his college career but is already among America’s best.

“It’s fantastic,” said Olesen, who has been the head coach at Charlotte for 13 years. “It’s unprecedented.”

One more great leap

To make the Olympics, though, McRae must do something he’s never done before. Olympic track and field events are scored by the metric system, and McRae’s qualifying leap to get into the trials was 2.25 meters (7 feet, 4.5 inches). A great jump – but still not enough. To make the U.S. Olympic team, you not only must finish top three, but you also must meet the Olympic standard for the event.

In the high jump, that Olympic standard is 2.29 meters (7 feet, 6 inches). So McRae must not only make the top three out of two dozen of the best jumpers in the U.S.; while doing that, he must also jump an inch and a half higher than he has in his life.

“I have the potential to do that,” McRae said.

“It’s a significant amount,” Olesen said. “But if he executes correctly, he can do it.”

What McRae needs, really, is one more great leap.

A fast approach, a jump toward the sky, a bar that stays in place – and, if all that happens, an all-expenses-paid ticket to Rio.