Since 1894, the Olympic motto has been Citius, Altius, Fortius, which means Faster, Higher, Stronger.
Wyatt Duke’s specialty is altius.
At a track meet on April 9, Duke jumped 6 feet, 9 inches, clearing the high jump bar with at least an inch to spare.
That height would place Duke sixth on the Big Sky Conference outdoor track and field performance list. Only one athlete from Montana, MSU’s Noah Martin, has jumped higher, at 7 feet and a quarter inch.
The thing is, Duke isn’t competing in the Big Sky Conference. He’s competing in Class B high school track.
Duke is a senior at Bigfork High School, and his jump at the Frenchtown Invitational tied the Class B all-state record (all-state records must be set at the state meet to be ratified by MHSA). If Flathead area records were kept, Duke would be fourth on the list, behind Troy Wassink (6-10.5, 2002, Flathead) and Scott Zanon and Shane Freese (6-10, 1983/2002, Flathead/Glacier). Give it the rest of the season, and Duke may take the top spot on that list. The all-class state record is 7-02.
“The goal right now is come state meet, I clear seven feet,” Duke said. “If it’s good weather, if I’m in good shape and we have everything down to where we need it, seven feet is a plausible goal.”
“Once you’ve been jumping for years, you don’t even really think about it,” Duke said. “It just becomes muscle memory.”
Duke has been jumping since he was in middle school, and his talent was readily apparent to his middle school coach, Stormi Taylor, as well as the Bigfork High School coach, Jim Epperly, who taught Duke in middle school.
“You could see it in junior high. You could see he had the right body frame and the passion for high jump,” Epperly said. “You just don’t get that enthusiasm and talent every day.”
Epperly has coached jumpers at Bigfork since 2001. While he has worked with talented jumpers, including 2014 state champion Josh Sandry (6-04), Duke is almost literally head and shoulders above the rest.
“He’s the most talented high jumper I’ve ever had,” Epperly said. “He’s very passionate about high jumping and he enjoys working at his craft — he’s disciplined, he manages his body and his recovery.”
In eighth grade, Duke cleared six feet in the last meet of the season.
“I can’t lie, it helps that I grew a lot,” Duke said. “But I went six feet, a PR, and as an eighth grader, that’s pretty good. So I was really looking forward to high school track.”
As a freshman, the then 6-foot-4 athlete jumped his own height.
He continues to do that every week, and more, almost nonchalantly.
“At a normal height, like six feet or something, you know a height that’s easy to jump, I’ll do a couple paces back and forth and look at the bar,” Duke said, talking through his jumping sequence.
Duke visualizes how hard of an effort the height should require. He’ll take a few deep breaths and rock back and forth in his spikes — just twice — to stretch his hamstrings.
Then it’s a 10-step approach, in a J-shaped curve toward the bar. For the first three or four steps, Duke bounds, leaping forward across the tartan track surface. Then his strides smoothly progress into a sprint as he rounds the corner of his J, leaning at the ankles.
At takeoff, Duke’s body is straight up, his left foot plants, his right knee drives upward, and, arms swinging, he leans back, curving his spine over the bar before tucking his chin to kick his legs up.
“I kind of close my eyes at some point when I’m going through the air,” Duke said. “When I get over the bar and land on the mat, and I didn’t feel the bar or anything, and I get off the mat and the bar’s still standing, that’s one of the greatest feelings ever. It’s very addicting.”
Missing a junior track season hurt some of Duke’s training, but he was able to spend part of the summer working with Epperly to refine nuances in his technique.
“I could tell last summer he was ready to hit that 6-10, 6-11 range,” Epperly said. “Class B has the best crew of jumpers at any division. Wyatt’s one of the guys who’s shown the ability to embrace competition and big meets, and he’s going to have to be at his best for state. He will have to go 6-10, 6-11 to win. That’s what I think it’ll come down to.”
Epperly believes Wyatt has the potential to be a 7-foot high jumper, which could mean a Big Sky Conference championship in the bag if he were to jump at the Division I level in Montana.
While impressing colleges and clearing new heights are top priorities for Duke, he ultimately wants to enjoy his senior season.
“I just want to have a good time with my teammates, support them the best I can and help everyone else,” Duke said. “But at the same time, go for the PRs and state records.”
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