Blissfield's Smith Aims to Spring into More Long-Jumping Success

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

March 30, 2022

BLISSFIELD – The 2021 track & field season didn’t start the way Annabelle Smith had hoped, but it sure finished the way she wanted. 

Smith opened the season by long jumping only 15 feet, 5 inches, well short of her best. She bounced back quickly and never lost in the event again, culminating with a Lower Peninsula Division 3 championship in the event. 

“I think it was probably my worst day since middle school,” she said of last spring’s start. 

Those days are long behind her. As she prepares for her senior season, she is confident, mentally strong, and physically ready to beat the early spring Michigan weather. 

“It’s sort of hard for me because I much prefer warmer weather,” the Blissfield senior said. “Spring is my time to prepare. I try to give as much as I can.” 

Michigan’s weather doesn’t do prep athletes any favors this time of the year. But, Smith said, it’s something you have to set aside and push through. It’s part of being mentally strong and focused. 

“It’s something you can’t really control. You just have to deal with it.” 

Smith picked up track & field in middle school. Her coaches had all of the athletes try every event to see what they were best at. She immediately took to the long jump. She qualified for the Finals as a freshman and tied for eighth place in the long jump but missed out on being named all-state due to a tiebreaker.  

She trained hard for her sophomore year, only to have it canceled due to COVID-19. Last year she recovered from that early-season meet to win the Lenawee County championship, Lenawee County Athletic Association championship, Regional and Finals titles. She set a personal record at the LPD3 Finals meet with a jump of 18-1.5 and became Blissfield’s first female athlete to win a state track title in 30 years. 

“What sets her apart is her competitiveness and ability to adapt in any situation,” said Calvin Sullins, a former decathlete at Siena Heights University who now coaches Smith at Blissfield. “She trusts our process and is an exceptional student of the sport.” 

There was a time that Smith just went out, located her marks, and jumped.  

Blissfield track & fieldSullins and the rest of the Royals coaching staff turned her head by concentrating on technique. 

“Coach Sullins has a lot of knowledge about track in general,” she said. “It’s been great to work with him. Being a decathlete, he knows about every event.” 

One of the techniques she learned was to count steps rather than just look for her mark when starting to sprint as she approaches the long jump platform. 

“I use an 11-step approach,” she said. “I count 11 strides, and I lift off.” 

She counts down in her head every time her left foot hits the ground. 

“I jump when I’m at one,” she said. “I don’t have to worry where I’m at. It took a little bit to get used to, but it makes everything easier.” 

She has scratched on occasion, but she trusts in her ability to take equal strides and count the 11 steps during her approach. 

Being consistent in her events is her biggest challenge. She also takes pride in her mental approach to every event. There can be long breaks during a track meet, but she makes sure to get focused when she has to. 

“Mentally, I’ve changed a lot,” she said. “For me, what works is to be very involved with the team and not spend my down time thinking about my event. When I start to warm up, I just envision what my jumps are going to look like. That’s my time to myself, my time to get focused.” 

In between her junior and senior year of high school, she competed in a United States Track and Field Junior Olympic event in Atlanta, placing third in her division. She also had a national event in Florida. Closer to home, she entered some indoor meets in the open class in the area and trained whenever she found the opportunity to get out of the cold. 

“I just tried to stay consistent all winter,” she said. “For me, technique is very important.” 

Smith is looking at a few colleges, some nearby and some across the country. She’s undecided what she wants to do or where she wants to compete at the next level. 

This year she intends to compete in the 100 or 200 meters and possibly some relays as well as the long jump. Her goal is to start stronger than last year and steadily improve as the season goes on and be at her best come the first weekend in June – when the MHSAA Finals take place. 

“This year, my goal is to PR and get back to the state meet and place,” she said. “I have a lot of time to improve myself. That’s my main goal – to be better.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Annabelle Smith, right, and credits her Blissfield coach Calvin Sullins with helping her become a championship long jumper. (Middle) Smith jumps during the 2019 Lenawee County Championships. (Top photo courtesy of the Smith family; middle photo by Mike Dickie.)

East Kentwood Friends Continuing to Excel as NCAA Champ, Pro Soccer Keeper

By Steve Vedder
Special for

August 8, 2022

Maia Perez and Gabriela Leon saw it coming.

In fact, the two 2017 East Kentwood all-staters each predicted remarkable post-high school success for each other long before graduation.

Perez was a four-year letterwinner as a soccer goalkeeper who led the Falcons to the Division 1 Semifinals as a sophomore and now plays professionally in Los Angeles. Leon, an all-state pole vaulter in high school, recently became University of Louisville's first NCAA champion in that event.

The two say the success doesn't come as a surprise to either, that part of that success can be explained because they continually pushed each other athletically at East Kentwood.

"Obviously there are a lot of good athletes at East Kentwood, and she was one of those amazing athletes," Perez said of Leon. "When she accomplished something, I wanted to do something big, too. I was all-state in soccer, she was all-state in track, and it was nice to have someone push you, even on days when you didn't feel like being pushed."

Leon credits Perez for helping her grasp the difference between toiling as an ordinary athlete and rising to an elite status as early as the ninth grade.

"When you see high-caliber athletes in the state finals, I think you see the struggles that others don't see," Leon said. "I saw what she was doing, and I learned from that. I learned, and I think she did too, that you have to work hard to be good, to achieve your goals. There is definitely mutual respect between us."

East Kentwood track & fieldThe two met as freshmen and quickly became friends. They originally had soccer in common as both played junior varsity as freshmen before Perez was promoted to varsity later that spring. The teammates began hanging out together off the field, be it at the beach or while taking the school's advanced physical education class together. By the time they were sophomores, however, it had become apparent that Perez's future – despite being a good basketball player – would remain in soccer, while Leon – who had also lettered in volleyball and cross country – narrowed her focus to track.

Both excelled after leaving East Kentwood. Leon had earned her first top-eight MHSAA Finals places as a sophomore, and as a senior placed fourth in pole vault, third in long jump and ran on the fourth-place 400 relay and third-place 1,600 relay as East Kentwood finished third in Lower Peninsula Division 1. Her high school personal records were 13 feet in pole vault and 18-11 in long jump (with a wind-aided 19-7). She broke Louisville's indoor and outdoor records in the pole vault as a sophomore and never looked back. She won the 2022 NCAA outdoor championship in June with a jump of 15-feet, one inch (4.6 meters) while becoming just the fourth collegian ever to amass three clearances over 4.6 meters.

Perez was a three-time Ottawa-Kent Conference Red soccer pick in high school who helped the Falcons in 2015 to their best postseason finish, when they lost to 1-0 in a Semifinal to eventual Division 1 champ Saline. She went on to play at University of Hartford after attracting interest from other programs including Western Michigan, Coastal Carolina and Pittsburgh. She wound up playing every minute of all 37 of her starts as a sophomore and junior while missing just 45 minutes over 19 games as a freshman. COVID-19 wiped out the program's season when Perez was a senior. Still, she is eighth on the school's all-time saves list with 206 while ranking 10th in shutouts with 12.

Following college, Perez was signed by the Los Angeles-based Angel City FC of the National Women’s Soccer League. While she wasn't drafted by any NWSL club, Perez impressed coaches enough during a tryout to land a spot on the team's "Discovery List" as the youngest of three goalkeepers.

"Things have been going real well for me there," Perez said. "I feel like I've improved a ton."

While Perez credits Leon with pushing her as an athlete, she said the two didn't necessarily dwell on what they accomplished in high school. They did, however, compare notes on the similarities it took for both to succeed, both physically and mentally.

"We didn't necessarily talk about (honors) a lot," Perez said. "We both knew what each other accomplished, and I don't think we need to talk about it. But I just knew one day she would be really good in track."

East Kentwood soccerLeon said the trait which stuck out about Perez in high school was her competitive drive. She hated to lose, Leon said.

"She was always a very impressive athlete," Leon noted. "She always had (success) in her because she was a real hard worker. Going into high school you could see her work ethic. We had a mutual friendship, and I saw what a work ethic and being humble could do for you."

As for herself, Leon, like many athletes, explored playing many sports. But she always came back to track.

"I always wanted to be the best athlete I could be," she said. "I was never just satisfied with just doing something. I always had this deep desire to perform to the best of my ability."

Perez remembers the first sport which interested her was skateboarding. In fact, the first time Perez met then-East Kentwood coach John Conlon, she told him she was only marginally interested in soccer. Conlon, who led East Kentwood’s girls and boys programs to a combined 654 wins and the boys varsity to five Division 1 championships, quickly made a convert of Perez.

"It's funny how things work out," Perez said. "I was looking for something that I could really be a part of, and now it's my job and I'm so happy I can say I'm getting paid for something I really like."

2021-22 Made in Michigan

Aug. 3: 3-Time Finals Champ Cherishes Memories, Considering Golf Future - Read
Aug. 1: 
Lessons Learned on Track Have Jibowu's Business Surging to Quick Success - Read
July 28: 
Running Set Life's Stage for Grosse Pointe South's Record-Setting Meier Sisters - Read
July 25: 
2005 Miss Basketball DeHaan Cherishing Newest Title: 1st-Time Mom - Read
July 21: 
Championship Memories Still Resonate with St. Thomas Star Lillard - Read
July 14:
Portage Central Champ Rolls to Vanderbilt, Writing Next Chapter in Alabama - Read
July 12: Coaching Couple Passing On Knowledge, Providing Opportunities for Frankfort Wrestlers - Read
June 30: Hrynewich's Star Continuing to Rise with Olympic, Pro Sports Arrivals - Read

PHOTOS (Top) Clockwise from left, Gabriela Leon competes for the East Kentwood and University of Louisville track & field teams, and Maia Perez plays soccer for East Kentwood and trains for the NWSL's Angel City FC. (Middle) Leon holds up her NCAA championship trophy in June. (Below) Perez is one of three keepers for Angel City FC. [Photos courtesy of East Kentwood's athletic department (2017 soccer), Run Michigan (2017 track & field), the Louisville athletic department (2022 track & field) and Will Navarro/Angel City FC (2022 soccer).]