HINGHAM - Chris McDowell didn’t set out to be a star high-jumper. He entered his freshman year at Hingham High School uncertain of what sport he would choose. Would it be football, the most popular sport in America and social center of many a high school experience? Would it be soccer, with its vast international following?
He considered both, but settled on track and field because he had friends who were doing the same. The decision has served him well.
Although his older sister, Caroline - now a senior economics major at Harvard - was a hurdler, his dad was a triple-jumper and long-jumper, and his uncle ran track at the University of Pennsylvania, McDowell initially considered himself skinny and didn’t think he had much potential for the sport.
He quickly proved himself wrong; as of the end of last month, the Hingham junior was ranked one of the top-10 best high-jumpers among high schoolers in the country, with enough championship potential that college recruiters already are scouting him.
But achievement isn’t the only thing McDowell found on the track.
The track team is a community, he said. Athletes support one another, and coaches treat them with respect. No one gets angry if someone makes a mistake. Boys and girls are less segregated than in other sports, attending the same meets and sometimes training together.
Students of different ages interact and make friends, and with coaches’ encouragement, they mentor younger members of the team.
“It’s kind of made me the person I am,’’ he said.
When he first joined the team, the students participated in a jumping test. McDowell thought he’d done only an OK job, until he realized he’d scored highest among the freshmen, he said.
He got the bug. At home, in a meandering, gabled brick house down a long driveway on Lincoln Street, he started leaping eight steps at a time, said his mom, Kim McDowell. And sometimes, just for fun, he would jump from a standing position onto the kitchen island.
Within three years, McDowell went from novice to nationally ranked high-jumper.
Earlier this season, he was ranked second in the country, his coach said. He has since dropped a few points, standing at seventh in the nation last week. The statistics change constantly, but whatever happens, McDowell has qualified for the National Scholastic Sports Foundation championship in New York City in March.
“This season, he exploded,’’ said Dawn Diedricksen, the Hingham boys’ high-jump coach. “It’s rare in high jump for an athlete to improve this much in one season.’’
He jumped 6 feet 7 inches, adding several inches to his best from last year and setting a school record for the indoor jump.
McDowell has 17 medals, and he has attracted the attention of college recruiters. Asked where he’s set his college sights, he said, “somewhere warm.’’ He likes the warmth, plus it would allow him to practice more outdoors.
He hopes to jump 7 feet someday, and before he leaves Hingham, he wants to beat the school’s outdoor record of 6 feet 8 inches. Students typically jump higher outdoors than indoors, he said. Indoor jumpers get less practice time because the basketball teams are using the gym.
The track team can practice in the cafeteria, but the floors are slippery, he said. Since the chilly weather arrived, he has practiced only twice.
Though he holds the school record indoors, the state indoor record has withstood 31 years of talented high-jumpers’ attempts to break it. Greg Gonsalves of Falmouth set the record at 7 feet 3 inches in 1981, according to John Carroll, a member of the executive committee of the Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association.
In a typical year, two or three boys will reach 6 feet 8 inches, he said. McDowell’s 6-foot, 7-inch jump puts him among the best in the state.
“We knew that a big jump in competition was coming, we just didn’t know when,’’ said Diedricksen, the high-jump coach. She said he worked hard last year to do the things that prepared him to make bigger jumps as a junior.
“I think the big thing that you can see this year is a new seriousness about competition,’’ she said.
For his part, McDowell said that when he posted the 6-foot-7 jump in competition, “I looked at it, and I was in disbelief. I didn’t realize how high that jump placed me.’’
Hingham boys’ head track coach Fred Jewett said McDowell’s performance represents the “first time in modern history’’ a Hingham high-jumper has done nearly as well on the indoor jump. The previous record wasn’t much above 6 feet, he said.
He attributed McDowell’s success to a great work ethic and competitive drive, calling him “a real gentleman.’’
“He’s a very good athlete, and he’s very bright, and he’s very disciplined,’’ Jewett said.
McDowell cited Dana Lindberg, a 2010 Hingham graduate who competes in track and field for Yale University, as a major influence.
“Freshman year, when I didn’t think that I had that much potential, he kind of convinced me I could go places with it,’’ he said.
The high-jump coach pointed to www.athletic.net as one of the websites where student athletes view their rankings. The site lists state and national data for the last several years, including rankings for the current season.
As of Friday, McDowell was part of a four-way tie for ninth place in the nation. Two other boys in the tie were also from Massachusetts: Gilberto Brown of Lowell and Oluwatoni Onikeku of Fitchburg. Together, the three ranked second in Massachusetts, behind Adam Couitt of Somerset. Couitt jumped 6 feet 9 inches, making him No. 1 in Massachusetts and tied for third in the nation.
The national leader was a Virginia junior, Rashan Jones, at 7 feet.
McDowell will have his chance to compete against the best high-jumpers in the country March 9 through 11 at the New Balance Indoor Nationals, to be held at the 168th Street Armory in Manhattan.
Diedricksen said she is excited to join the McDowell family at the meet. This is only the second time one of her jumpers has qualified, she said, and the first time was several years ago, when she coached for Plymouth North High School. The standard to qualify was lower at the time, she said; now the indoor standard is 6 feet 6 inches for boys, 5 feet 5 inches for girls.
Those jumps qualify student athletes to compete in championship events. A separate division at the meet, called Emerging Elite, welcomes athletes who have not yet qualified for the championship.
McDowell will compete with the best, in the championship division.
“His dad and I are very proud of him and try to support him any way we can,’’ his mother said. She and his father, John McDowell, have done what they can to support all their children, including daughter Katherine, who participated in rowing in high school and is now a freshman at Williams College.
This year, Chris McDowell tried out for football, and he made the junior varsity team. While he enjoys it, he said, track is unique. No one gets cut from the team, and freshmen and sophomores have their moment in the sun with a freshman-sophomore meet every year.
“Even though track is more of an individual sport,’’ he said, “I feel more like I’m part of a team.’’