SHORELINE — A jump of 6 feet, 10 inches won’t be enough for Ronnie Gary, even if it means a gold medal is hung around his neck atop the podium at the Class 3A state track and field championships this weekend at Mount Tahoma High School.
Gary, a Shorewood High School senior and the Wesco champion in the high jump, triple jump and long jump, has his sights set on 7 feet in the high jump, the qualifying mark for this summer’s IAAF World Junior Championships.
“I’m just trying to (set a personal record) every single meet and just keep moving up,” said Gary, who heads into this weekend’s state meet with the third-best Class 3A mark in the high jump at 6-10. “I don’t believe I have a cap or anything. I think I can get better and better each time I do it.”
A district championship medal adorns his neck and a bevy of blue ribbons hang from his backpack, yet Gary speaks with nary a whiff of arrogance. He hasn’t been an elite athlete long enough to know how good he is, and his demeanor reflects that.
“Ronnie is sort of like having a 13-year-old son who is just realizing that he’s becoming a teenager — he’s still at that very respectful age,” said Johnnie Williams, who coaches Gary with the Seattle-based High Voltage Track Club. “Most kids at that age try to challenge you, and Ronnie’s not one of those kids.”
As the high jump bar rises, so do Gary’s goals. But it was just three years ago that the track and field community got its first glimpse of Gary’s natural talent.
An odyssey begins
The youngest of 11 siblings, Gary lived in California until his mother, Phyllis, passed away eight years ago. Then his odyssey began.
He went to Arizona for a year to live with older brother Robert Coleman before returning to California for five years to live with an aunt. That’s also where Gary played football for the first time as a high school freshman.
Prior to Gary’s sophomore year, another older brother, George Coleman, was discharged from the Navy and settled with his wife, Tigest, in North Seattle. Coleman, 34, took custody of his younger brother and brought him to Seattle and enrolled him at Nathan Hale High School.
“I needed a positive male role model in my life,” Gary said. “My brother thought it would be better if I came up here. The academics are better up here too. It’s a better opportunity.”
George and Tigest in essence became parents of a teenager without getting the opportunity to raise that teenager from infancy.
“It’s a gamble almost because I’m balancing on the line of father figure at the same time as the older brother,” Coleman said. “That’s a very hard line to be able to walk on and not be too heavy on one side or the other. On the flip side of that, you’re getting a young adult who — at the time he was 15 — who is kind of set in his ways, and that’s at the time when hormones for guys are really going.”
Gary played football as a sophomore that fall for Nathan Hale and went out for track on a lark. That was when his natural talent became apparent.
One day in May of 2014, he walked in the door and announced he was going to state in the high jump.
“You’ve never high jumped before,” Coleman said.
“I know, right?” Gary replied.
Gary jumped 6-4 to finish second at the 2014 Class 3A state meet. But soon it was time to change schools again.
Back on the move
Coleman bought a home with his wife in the Shoreline School District, and Gary transferred to Shorewood prior to his junior year.
In football Gary excelled even as the team struggled. The Thunderbirds finished his two seasons with a 2-18 record, but Gary became an All-State wide receiver. He earned a scholarship to Central Washington, where he will play receiver in football and compete for the track team.
“With the older brother thing, there’s always that brother rivalry and I’m like ‘You’ll never be better than me,’” said a chuckling Coleman, who played football, ran track and wrestled in high school. “But, no, Ronnie — not just in football – he’s a far better athlete in everything.”
Gary added the triple jump and long jump to his repertoire this spring and his collection of medals and ribbons continued to multiply. He’s ranked ninth in the long jump (21-10) and fifth in the triple jump (45-0) going into this week’s state meet.
Gary owes most of his seemingly instant success to his raw talent. To reach elite levels the work ethic has to match the ability, and that can be difficult to understand when you’re winning every event.
Shorewood head boys’ track coach Miles Mason said “something clicked” for Gary during the football season and the work ethic now matches the natural ability.
“He’s got beautiful form, he’s explosive and he’s fast down the runway, which helps,” said Mason, a former middle-distance runner at Montana State. “We saw him at the state meet his sophomore year and you could see he was very explosive off the ground. He could jump really high, but didn’t have a ton of form to him. He’s starting to match the form to the explosiveness this year, and it’s really taken off.”
So have Gary’s leadership skills. With 140 Shorewood track athletes and just four coaches, Gary uses his experience and technique to help other athletes. His influence is such that the Shorewood coaching staff promoted him to captain at midseason.
‘Born with the gift’
The 2016 state track and field state championships get underway Thursday afternoon as Class 2A, 3A and 4A athletes converge for the three-day event in Tacoma. The long jump finals are Friday, and the triple jump and high jump finals are Saturday.
“Ronnie was born with the gift — he can jump,” Williams said. “Ronnie is good, but he needs more competition. He needs to jump with jumpers that are a little bit better than him.”
That should happen this weekend. Six-foot-six, the height Gary cleared to win the district title, probably won’t be high enough this weekend.
That’s just fine.
“You can really start to feed off your competitors. You get to watch them do something and then their mark comes up and it lights a fire,” Mason said. “You set the bar, you clear it, it goes up two inches. Clear it, it goes up two inches. You can kind of see the field dwindling, so you know who your competition is if you didn’t know ahead of time.”
But don’t bet against Gary.
So far, he’s cleared every bar put in front of him, the metaphorical ones — the death of his mother, multiple moves, a couple high school transfers — and the physical ones.
Now, all that’s left in his stellar prep career is that 7-foot barrier.
Follow Herald writer Jesse Geleynse on Twitter @jessegeleynse.