YAKIMA, Wash. — Zach Semon knows how to help high jumpers up their game, but in the last month — and quite by chance — he seriously upped his game as a coach.
One day you're biggest thrill is watching one of your teenage athletes earn a state high school medal.
Then, out of the blue, you help a former Olympian and national champion regain her form and qualify for the World Championships.
"It's still kind of a blur, but what an incredible experience," said the 1997 Eisenhower graduate. "As a huge, huge fan of the sport, it was like a dream come true to be involved at that level."
Semon might have attended the U.S. National Championships last month as a spectator, but instead he was rushed into service as a fully credentialed USATF coach who helped Texan Inika McPherson place second in the women's high jump with a season best of 6 feet, 4.25 inches.
A dedicated student of the event since his days jumping for the Cadets and later as a coach at Eisenhower, Semon connected with McPherson through social media, offering encouragement and support for the type of jumper he was especially drawn to — short and explosive.
"One of the million things I love about track is that the top athletes don't get paid enough to be high and mighty," he said. "My wife and I saw Inika jump in Portland a couple years ago and I had no idea she was that short, just 5-4. Last winter we posted a few messages back and forth with her, and then we went to the Drake Relays this spring and that's how all this started."
McPherson didn't jump very well that cold and wet day in Iowa at the Drake Relays, but Semon and his wife huddled under a raincoat and stayed through the entire event and were especially supportive of McPherson, who came up in the stands to say thanks.
"We chatted for a while, got some lunch and she asked about my coaching background," he said. "She asked what I would have told her to do differently that day so I gave some critiques. She liked my perspective and the way I looked at things. I was kind of stunned by the whole thing. It was one of those did-that-just-happen? things."
McPherson, who struggled through the first part of the season, had recently switched coaches and her current coach wasn't able to attend the U.S. Nationals, which was the qualifier for the World Championships. Impressed with Semon, she asked for his help.
"She said I need someone to be my eyes out there, can you help me?," he said. "Are you kidding? Of course I wanted to, but there were hoops to jump through to get the USATF certification. Once I got through that, I started studying her videos. Then I started getting really nervous."
That's because it's one thing to coach high school kids, it's another to show up at the nation's biggest track and field competition and rub elbows with some of the best coaches in the world. As a self-described "full-on high jump geek," Semon is familiar with who all the notable coaches are, including former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham and his daughter Vashti, a World Indoor champion.
Now here he was, side by side with them.
And with a marquee athlete relying on him.
"From high school to that stage, sure, I had my doubts at first," Semon admitted. "But once I got over being star struck, I got into coaching mode and focused on exactly what I needed to do. We got Inika dialed in on her steps, talked after each of her jumps, made some little adjustments along the way and got it done."
McPherson, who competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, stands just 5-4 and owns a career best from 2014 of 6-5, giving her the world record for head clearance. Turning 33 next month, she jumped just 6-1.5 this year heading into Nationals and she faced two requirements to qualify for Worlds — place in the top three and make the standard of 6-4.25.
She nailed both.
"I think I helped most with her angle on her plant (before takeoff). At times she was a little too far away from the bar," he explained. "And as the event went along we made some technical changes with her steps. I was just in the moment and really concentrating, then I would look around and think, wow, I'm really doing this."
Semon, a special education elementary teacher in Minnesota, coached high jumpers at Eisenhower from 2010 to 2017. One of his athletes, Kaitlyn Ditter, placed third in the Class 4A state meet two years ago. Highly rewarding indeed, but now he has helped coach an Olympian who will compete again on the world stage this fall in Doha, Qatar, thanks to his insights and counsel.
Humbling, and so cool.
"To have coaches come up afterwards and say, 'Great job, well done,' I'll never forget something like that," he said. "I love coaching the event and I'd coach anyone, little kids, middle school, high school. But at this level, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."