By Drew Harris | UTAMavs.com
AUSTIN, Texas -- With an undersized high jumper, a Paralympic world record holder and a true freshman, few schools in the country have field event participants competing in the NCAA West Preliminary Round with more unique storylines than UT Arlington's jumpers.
The impressive trio--Roland Sales, Tobi Fawehinmi and Chineme Obikudu--has persevered, overcoming size, physical handicap and age limitations to reach one of the biggest stages in college track and field.
"We are so proud of this group," UTA coach John Sauerhage said. "They have been huge contributors to our program, and fortunately for us, all of them have a lot more time to continue to thrive at UTA."
Despite standing just 5-foot-10 and competing against fellow high jumpers typically anywhere between two and eight inches taller, Sales has shined at big meets throughout his three-year career.
And with the bright lights of Austin on him Thursday night, he once again excelled, qualifying for his first NCAA Championships with a clutch performance. On his second attempt at 7 feet, 1 1/2 inches, the appropriately-named Sales topped his personal best and narrowly missed setting the all-time school record, which has been held down since 2001.
The eruption from the UTA coaching staff in the stands told the story, as Sales became the first UTA high jumper to reach the NCAA Championships since Isiah Clements placed 15th in 2011.
Sales' heroic performance punctuated an outstanding year, one that included Sun Belt Conference high jump titles in both the indoor and outdoor seasons. It was the third appearance at the NCAA West Preliminary Round for Sales, who finished 30th and 31st in the competition his first two years.
"Roland really performed when it counted," UTA associate head coach Brandon Berger said. "He's just naturally gifted and sound technically. Size is not on his side, but he's a good competitor, and I always have confidence in him to come through at big meets."
Meanwhile, Fawehinmi returns to the site of his Paralympic world record performance back in March at the Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays. He will look to make more history in the triple jump on Saturday evening, as he attempts to qualify for the NCAA Championships.
Fawehinmi, who suffered shoulder dystocia during childbirth, which led to an underdeveloped left arm, is a poster child for overcoming adversity. The sophomore, who competed for the United States at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London as a high schooler, now sits atop the world rankings with an official leap of 50 feet, 1/2 inch.
A few weeks later at Baylor, he exceeded that mark, jumping 50 feet, 7 1/4 inches. It was certified as an American record, but the world mark he set in Austin remains. His jump at Baylor ranks fifth in school history.
Fawehimni was named the Sun Belt Conference Male Field Athlete of the Week for his performance at the Texas Relays. He later earned all-conference honors in the triple jump with a third-place finish at the league meet.
"Tobi's had a great year and made very large improvements," Berger said. "And I think there's even more there. The potential is there for him to go out and set a new PR. He's jumped well here and that should give him more confidence to go out and do it again."
The Mavericks also boast a top-notch triple jumper on the women's side. Just a freshman, Obikudu has already put her name in the UTA record books with the third-best effort ever in the event.
She registered a leap of 41 feet, 6 inches in a clutch runner-up performance at the SBC Championships to earn a spot in this week's field. She is one of only 10 freshmen to advance to the West Prelims in the event.
And the 2014 UIL Class 5A state champion in the event is far from reaching her peak. She will have another crack against the best Saturday afternoon at the prelims.
"She's had a great freshman season," Berger said. "And she's just figuring out her potential. She's going to continue to improve as she gets more and more aggressive.
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Sun Belt Track Championships Central