'I've loved it': Auburn freshman hurdler Ja'Kobe Tharp, SEC champion

David Gray/Auburn Tigers

Ja'Kobe Tharp

AUBURN, Ala.  Cut from his seventh-grade basketball team, Ja'Kobe Tharp decided to give track and field a try.

"I've got to do something, so I just started to run track," said Tharp, who six short years later would break a legendary American Junior (U20) record that had stood for nearly a half century. "My middle school coach made me run hurdles. I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to fall on one of the hurdles."

One year later, Tharp won the middle school hurdles Tennessee state championship, a feat he repeated as a junior and senior at Rockvale High School near Murfreesboro.

Ironically, it was basketball – the sport that redirected Tharp to track and field and launched an SEC championship career – that helped pave his way to the Plains.

After pandemic school closures canceled his ninth-grade season, Tharp tried out for basketball as a sophomore and made the team.

"His athletic ability is what drew me to him out of high school," Auburn sprints coach Ken Harnden said. "I watched him dunk from the free-throw line in a game and do crazy stuff on the basketball court. When he got the ball in space, it was special."

Tharp displayed that special ability in his first race last year by winning the 110m hurdles in a landslide. Tennessee MileSplit posted a TikTok video of Tharp's exploits captioned "You're in the wrong heat!", generating millions of views.

"My senior year, I was flying," said Tharp, whose high school best time was 13.32 seconds over 39-inch hurdles. "I had a good start and after hurdle two, I flew past everybody. There was a video recording, and it was just me in the frame for the last five hurdles."

At the 2024 SEC Outdoor Championships May 11 in Gainesville, Tharp not only won the gold medal, his 13:18 time broke the record Super Bowl champion Renaldo Nehemiah set in 1978.

"It really felt great," Tharp said. "I didn't know I had broken it, honestly. One of my better starts of the season, but it still wasn't where I want it to be. Toward the end, my race gets better. I just kept on handling what I needed to handle in my lane. I kept going and the rhythm got quicker."

"If you go down that list of the people he passed, every Olympic champ for the last 20 years is on that list," Harnden said. "He's just shot past all of them. It's a pretty special deal."

"It's huge," Auburn head coach Leroy Burrell said. "Renaldo is an icon, not only in football and track and field, but in sport.

"Ja'Kobe worked hard. Ken did a great job of recruiting and preparing him. He's got a bright future. I think he's just getting started. These next couple weeks could be even bigger than the last couple.

"I'm fortunate to get to witness it. He's a great kid, great smile, great personality. It's really fun to see a guy like him get the reward."
 SEC champ: Ja'Kobe Tharp celebrates after his record-setting race
Tharp hopes to join his coaches as NCAA champions June 5-8 at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon. Harnden won the 1995 NCAA 400m hurdles title at North Carolina and Burrell won the NCAA 100m title in 1990 and the NCAA indoor long jump championships at Houston in 1989 and 1990.

"That's why I came here," Tharp said. "Out of all the schools that were recruiting me, that's why I came here. I knew Coach Ken was going to get me where I needed to be.

"At the beginning of the year, I told coach I wanted to be a champion, either SECs or nationals. He made it happen."

When Tharp signed with the Tigers, his mother gave Harnden permission to use tough love to help guide her son.

"'Do what you have to do to get my kid to the next level, academically and as a person,'" Harnden recalls Aminda Tharp saying. "He's a fantastic kid and a great teammate."

"Coach and I are always talking about executing the race," Tharp said. "Finish each hurdle before you go to the next one. As long as I execute, there's no telling what that time will say."

"What surprised me the most is his flat foot speed," Harnden said. "He's turned into a really good sprinter. Maybe that's partly because of the group he trains with."
 Ja'Kobe Tharp plans to improve his starting technique after the 2024 season
At Auburn, Tharp easily fit in with the Tigers' sprinters, who practice together daily.

"I've loved it," Tharp said. "My teammates are like a little family away from home. I love that."

The freshman phenom not only lowered his times, he also cleared higher hurdles, from 39 inches in high school to 42 inches in college.

"It was hard to get used to at first," Tharp said. "Now I have to jump the hurdle. In high school, I was sliding by on top of the hurdles. I was fast so it made up for it. It's been completely different."

"His high school times were good but they weren't indicative of this," Harnden said. "To take the hurdles up 3 inches and run faster than you ran over the little hurdles says a lot."

Tharp's combination of long legs, leaping ability and running speed set him up for success as he covers 10 hurdles and 110 meters in the time it takes to sing the alphabet.

"I've always been fast," he said. "Perfecting my form, that's the biggest thing. I'm getting closer and closer to having great form."

For Tharp, the event challenges him physically and mentally.

"The thrill," Tharp said. "You're in the box. You're trying to calm yourself down. As the race starts, so many things can happen that you have to react to quickly."

After the season, Tharp and Harnden plan to work on Ja'Kobe's start, hoping to cut it down from eight steps to seven before the first hurdle. Once his start is as strong as his finish, the rest of the field could be in trouble.

"When it does, it opens up a whole another level of possibilities," Harnden said. "When we improve that part, that'll make a big difference."

"The best part of my race is the end," Tharp said. "At the beginning, I'm trying to work on getting my rhythm earlier. Once I get into rhythm, that's when I start picking up speed and pulling away from other people."

Tharp competes next at NCAA East Preliminaries May 22-25 in Lexington, Kentucky, with hopes of advancing to NCAAs two weeks later and adding to his SEC gold medal.

"That would be really huge if I could bring home a national medal," Tharp said. "My first year, I couldn't ask for a better season."
 Gold medalist: Auburn freshman Ja'Kobe Tharp won the 2024 SEC championship in 110m hurdles

Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_shearer