Ja’Kobe Tharp — Rebuilt & Revved Up For NCAA Champs

“I didn’t anticipate that we’d have a 13.1 hurdler, one of the best Juniors ever, on our hands,” says Auburn coach Leroy Burrell. (DAVID GRAY/AUBURN TIGERS)

WHILE JA’KOBE THARP was looking for his mother in the stands at the SEC Championships, somebody else was looking for him.

It was Grant Holloway.

Tharp, an Auburn frosh, had just broken Renaldo Nehemiah’s 46-year-old American Junior (U20) Record in the 110H, clocking 13.18 for the victory and bettering the previous mark by 0.05.

“He gave me a handshake and congratulated me,” Tharp says of 3-time world champion Holloway. “He said, ‘Keep working.’”

Says Holloway, “I think he’s an amazing athlete. Obviously, all roads lead to Olympic Trials, so we’ll see what the young thundercat has to offer.”

The road also goes through the NCAA Championships. Tharp, who ran 13.24 as the top qualifier from the NCAA East Regional, will contend with more experienced athletes including Houston senior De’Vion Wilson, who led the West Regional, also in 13.24. Ja’Qualon Scott, a Texas A&M junior, Nebraska senior Darius Luff and defending champion Phillip Lemonious, an Arkansas senior, are also in the mix.

“Look, I don’t think anybody could have predicted him to run this fast,” says Auburn sprint coach Ken Harnden. “He’s 18 years old. He’s not going to be as explosive and powerful as some of these older kids. Let’s be honest, some of the kids he’s running against are sixth-year seniors.”

Tharp heads to the NCAA as the world’s No. 6 performer this year. He was the first Auburn frosh to win an SEC Outdoor title in any event since ’11 and is the first Tigers yearling to qualify for the NCAAs in the 110H since James Walker in ’76.

No stranger to breaking records that have stood for decades, Tharp also took down a 42-year old Tennessee HS record, clocking 13.72 for Rockvale High. The 2-time state champ’s best performance over 39-inch hurdles was 13.32 in windy conditions.

In one viral video, “The last five hurdles, there was nobody in the frame except me,” Tharp says.

Harnden knew Tharp, who is about 6-foot-4 (1.94), would have no trouble with the higher collegiate hurdles. “He’s so light off the ground,” the coach says.

Tharp’s high school basketball videos were also part of his recruiting package. “You watch him take off at the free-throw line and dunk and do crazy stuff like that,” Harnden remembers.

“If it wasn’t a dunk,” Tharp responds with a big smile, “I probably didn’t take it.”

His mother, Aminda, played for Tennessee–Martin and Dyersburg State CC as a power forward/center and his father, Jimmie Ware, was a high school player. But basketball didn’t love Tharp as much as he loved it. He tried out for his middle school team in seventh grade and didn’t make it. “So, I was like, “I’ve got to do some type of sport,” Tharp says, “so I started running track.”

The coach took one look at his long legs and knew exactly where he wanted him. “I really didn’t want to do hurdles because I was scared I was going to fall,” Tharp says. “Seventh grade it was kind of rocky, but eighth grade, I popped out and I won State. So I said, ‘OK, I’m going to keep doing this.’”

Tharp did go back to high school basketball and it’s still his favorite sport. “But I’m just good at track, so that’s what I stuck with.”

In high school, Tharp watched videos of Holloway and tried to imitate his form. Built more like the young Usain Bolt than the powerful former Gator, Tharp says, “Now I’m trying to focus on what suits me best and just execute my race.”

Although mononucleosis and a strained hamstring — the first injury of his career — cost Tharp 6 weeks in this indoor season, he bounced back quickly. Training with the sprint group at Auburn, including NCAA 100 qualifiers Favour Ashe (9.94) and Kanyinsola Ajayi (10.03), also kept him on his toes.

“We really took him down to the nuts and bolts in the fall and rebuilt him to look like what he looks now,” Harnden says. “If you look at his hurdle form in high school, it’s definitely not what it looks like now.”

After two false starts in meets early in the outdoor season, Tharp showed improvement every outing.

“It’s one of those things that you don’t see very often at the collegiate level,” says Auburn head coach Leroy Burrell. “I didn’t anticipate that we’d have a 13.1 hurdler, one of the best Juniors ever, on our hands. Now that we realize where he is and what he’s capable of doing, we’re going to have to ramp up our plan for him and see how far he can take this.”

The world U20 record of 13.12, was set by Xiang Liu of China in ’02.

Next year, Tharp will switch from 8 steps to 7 at the start, which will put him on more equal footing with other world-class hurdlers. He may also add the 200 or the 400H to his repertoire.

“We haven’t gotten to the point where we’ve worked on the first four hurdles yet,” Harnden says. “He’s technically sound. He’s done a great job of learning to be consistent through the hurdles.”

Although his coaches expected Tharp would have to come from behind in the SEC — which he did — they knew how impressive his last four hurdles are.

“The last four hurdles are as good as almost anybody I’ve seen in a long time,” says Burrell. “But he is young and he hasn’t encountered all of the variables that you will encounter over the course of a lengthy career.

“He really hasn’t had a race yet over the last four hurdles and to the finish and I’m really interested to see how he handles that when he gets into that situation.”

Tharp is unfazed by the prospect of taking his hurdling to the next level. “I love pressure,” he says. “I feel like pressure makes me run even faster, honestly.”

“He certainly is a Saturday guy,” says Burrell. “On a Tuesday, he’s good, but on Saturdays, it’s like whooooo…”

Tharp says he hasn’t lost a 110H race since the Tennessee State Meet his sophomore year.

“He loves to compete,” Harnden says. “And that willingness to go out every time and see if I’m the sharp end of the spear today is not something you find in every athlete. It’s not something you can teach.”

Tharp hopes to join his coaches as an NCAA outdoor champion. Burrell won the 100 in 1990 for Houston and Harnden captured the ’95 title in the 400H for North Carolina.

And eventually, the ambitious frosh would also like to follow them onto the Olympic stage. Burrell was a 1992 4×1 gold medalist for the U.S. and Harnden, still the Zimbabwean recordholder at 48.05, went to two Games.

And if Tharp finds himself hurdling alongside Holloway?

“Just focus on my lane and my race,” he says, “and whatever happens, happens.”