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Big goals and superstitions push Marble Falls high jumper

Marble Falls High School sophomore high jumper Kason O’Riley demonstrated the proper form for clearing the high jump during practice April 1, two days before he won the District 17-5A championship. Staff photo by Jennifer Fierro

Marble Falls High School sophomore high jumper Kason O’Riley demonstrated the proper form for clearing the high jump during practice April 1, two days before he won the District 17-5A championship. Staff photo by Jennifer Fierro


Marble Falls High School high jumper Kason O’Riley might tell you the keys to his District 17-5A championship leap April 3 were a twenty-dollar bill from his parents tucked into his jacket, one white shoe and one black shoe on his feet, and the same socks he wears at every meet.

Athletes often cling to superstitious habits as part of pre-competition rituals.

O’Riley offered some “proof” for his lucky socks.

“I changed my socks up,” he said about a meet where he barely cleared 6 feet. “The next week, I got my socks back and jumped 6-07.”

In reality, however, O’Riley’s success boils down to plain old hard work.

The sophomore track-and-field athlete cleared 6-06 for the district title at the meet at Pflugerville Weiss High School on Wednesday. It was one 1 inch lower than his fifth-place finish March 29 at the Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays and 2 inches below his personal best.

The Texas Relays hosts some of the best Texas high school athletes. Unlike in University Interscholastic League competition, where athletes go against others from similar-size schools, at the relays, they are all in one big pool.

At the Texas Relays, O’Riley faced a clear-it-or-go-home situation with the bar at 6-07. The 6-foot-5-inch high jumper failed to get over the bar twice at that height. If he missed the third time, he’d have to settle for his previous clearance to determine his standing at the meet.

Mentally imploding is always a possibility for an athlete in this situation.

“On my last attempt, I focused on going up and powering over it and getting my head back,” he said. “I kicked my legs up and got over it.”

The jump earned him fifth place.

Stepping into Mike A. Meyers Stadium on the University of Texas campus, where the relays are held, tested him.

“I started to get a little nervous with butterflies in my stomach,” O’Riley said. “As soon as I jumped, it all went away.”

It was his first time at the event, adding to the nervousness.

“(The Texas Relays) was my biggest meet ever,” he said. “It was a crazy environment. There was a lot of screaming and yelling. It was awesome.”

The stadium is also where the Class 5A track-and-field state championships will be held May 10-11, so the experience could help him down the road.

O’Riley, who is also a shooting guard for the Mustangs basketball team, caught the attention of Marble Falls coaches last year when they moved him to the varsity to compete at the district meet. He cleared 6-02 to finish as district runner-up but was eighth at the area meet where he cleared 5-10 to finish the season.

Since then, O’Riley has come back with a purpose.

“High jump has given me that really good feeling,” he said. “I spend time jumping and working out and working on technique.”

His goal is to high jump in college and one day in the Olympics. To do both means jumping higher than 7 feet.

To help him get there, O’Riley trains with Alex Charles, a Baylor University high jumper and the son of Charles Austin, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the event and the American record holder at 7-10.5.

O’Riley shares the event with his mother, Katy O’Riley. His mom once held the Arkansas high school high jump record at 5-9.75. He cleared that height his freshman year. His father is Shawn O’Riley.

The younger O’Riley’s first big rivals, like many youths, were his older brothers, Ethan and Zach. At one point, Zach cleared 6-06 on the high jump. As the youngest, Kason knew that to earn any creditability among his siblings, he had to eclipse them.

He did.

Jumping higher than his brothers empowered him and helped him believe he could win anywhere, especially after his two brothers made a difficult declaration.

“They admitted that I was better than them,” he said with a smile.   

Sibling rivalry, like superstitions, isn’t enough to push someone to become a top-flight high jumper. O’Riley must put in the work and time on the track. When others call it a day, he pushes on, getting just a few more repetitions.

Other keys to being a successful high jumper, according to Marble Falls high jump coach Scott Johnson, are technique, form, and strong legs.

Johnson and O’Riley spend a lot of time on form and technique, even “the curve as he’s coming into” the bar. This approach appears simple, but it’s actually an intricate process with the angle, each motion, movement, and step broken down, studied, and practiced before coach and athlete put it all back together for competition.

“People don’t think about the angle of the attack,” Johnson said. “If your angle is off, it throws your technique off. You can’t drop your hips. All those angles have to be perfect.”

High jumpers don’t just throw themselves over the bar. They definitely don’t dive over the bar either. They actually jump backward over it.

Even after a high jumper takes their three “power steps” as they approach the bar to generate an explosive jump, their work isn’t done. In the moment they get off the ground while turning their back to the bar, they still must get their head and shoulders, followed by their hips, up and over. Finally, they have to maintain the mental awareness to kick their legs and feet so as to not touch the bar as they slip over it.

Johnson believes O’Riley has many of the pieces in place to fulfill his high jump goals. Now, it’s a matter of putting in the work.

“He can get a whole lot better if he gets stronger,” Johnson said. “His body form is perfect for high jumping.”

Just in case, O’Riley plans to wear those same socks, lace up the black shoe and the white one, and tuck a twenty-dollar bill from his parents into his jacket before every meet.

Why tempt fate?