Diabetes, Missed COVID Season Can't Slow Renaissance Record Setter

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

May 13, 2021

Kaila Jackson knew something was wrong.

Less than two months had passed since she competed, as an eighth grader, in the 2018 Michigan High School Indoor State Track Championships in Saginaw, where she set a meet and age group (indoor) record in the 60-yard dash of 7.56 seconds. And her body was sending her confusing signals.

“My times were getting slower,” she said. “I was out of breath.”

Her parents, Anthony and Kimberlee Jackson, weren’t taking any chances with the youngest of their two children. They took Kaila to their family pediatrician and, after receiving the shocking results, she was immediately taken to Beaumont Hospital.

At age 13, Jackson was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

The self-pity, depression or additional physical and/or emotional difficulties Kaila experienced upon receiving the news didn’t last long. That August she won the AAU 100-meter national championship at North Carolina A&T before entering her freshman year at Detroit Renaissance.

“It did take time to get (physically) better,” she said. “After a few days, me and my dad, we said let’s get on the track and see what happens. And I did pretty good. I was surprised.”

The more Jackson runs, the more she wins and the more the records fall. That first season at Renaissance, at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Track & Field Championships, Jackson won the 200-meter dash, placed second in the 100, and her sprint relay teams won both the 400 and 800.

The pandemic cut short the 2020 track season, but it didn’t stop Jackson. She continued to train with her three coaches – her father, Renaissance girls track coach Calvin Johnson, and Olympic gold medalist Darnell Hall, who serves as the Renaissance boys track coach. Unofficially, all three coach both squads. With their help, Jackson continues to improve her standing in the world of track & field.

Detroit Renaissance girls track & fieldAt the Ypsilanti Lincoln Spring Indoor Classic on April 10, Jackson won the 100 and 200-meter dashes with the times of 11.82 and 24.04, respectively. The time in the 100 set a national high school indoor record.

It’s been a quick rise to the top for Jackson, and her ability as a track athlete came out of the blue. Her older sister, Tailar, is an accomplished volleyball player who will graduate from Winston-Salem State (NC) on May 21 after competing in that sport for four years.

Her parents were also fine athletes. Kimberlee played volleyball at Detroit Pershing, and Anthony played basketball and was the starting quarterback on the 1988 Detroit dePoress Class C championship team. Anthony Jackson went to Cincinnati and started as a receiver, but was forced to leave school after his sophomore season due to a family illness.

Kaila Jackson’s entry into track began with a phone call from a gym teacher at her school, Bates Academy in Detroit.

“He calls me up and says, she’s (running faster than) all the boys,” Anthony Jackson said. “So I gave Darnell, who I’ve known for years, a call and he said to bring my daughter to him. After he sees her run he says to me, ‘I think we got something here.’

“My wife and I were surprised. Track is not something we talked about. But one thing I will say: Kaila is a competitor. ”

And that continues, whether it’s competing against the sprinters next to her or battling the diabetes she lives with every day. That passion to compete, to excel, began early on.

In her second season competing on a national level, Jackson placed seventh in the 100-meter at the U-9 championships. As a 10-year-old, she placed second in the 100 and the 200.

Most recently, Renaissance took first place at Friday’s New Balance Invitational that featured 16 teams from Michigan hosted by Farmington High. Jackson was named MVP as she took first in the 100 (12.06) and 200 (24.95), and her sprint relay teams both placed first. 

Her teammate and fellow junior, Olivia Jenkins, was second in the 100 (12.65). Another Renaissance junior, Leeah Burr, placed first in the 400 (57.26).

“As a freshman, (Jackson) was immature,” Johnson said. “Her maturation process has improved tenfold. She’s at that point … she’s extremely talented but extremely coachable. She doesn’t carry herself like she knows everything.

“Through the maturation process she’s working toward what I want her to do, and that’s the 400. It will extend her range. She really likes the 200, and (competing in the) 400 will give her more strength.”

Johnson is in his seventh season at Renaissance. His first head coaching stint was at Berkley (1988-98) before he moved on to Southfield High. A hurdles champion in high school in Georgia and at South Carolina State, Johnson said he and Hall are fortunate to be blessed with the top-level athletes under their wings. Johnson’s expertise is working with the hurdlers and the athletes who compete in the high and long jumps, but he’s involved with all facets of the program and team management of the deep and experienced lineup.

Renaissance as a team finished runner-up to Oak Park at the 2019 Division 1 Final, and Jackson surely will make the Phoenix a favorite again next month as it pursues its first championship since 2007.

Like all the athletes whose 2020 seasons were cut short by COVID-19, Jackson was disappointed she was unable to compete in school-sponsored meets. That said, Johnson said that left a bitter taste – with the result being Jackson is even more determined to excel.

Finishing first is but one goal. Others include being a leader and a role model. In the end it’s about being the best person she can be, as an athlete, a student (Jackson has a 3.8 GPA) and teammate. She achieves while also giving herself three insulin shots daily.

“We don’t want her to get too big-headed,” Anthony Jackson said. “She’s a humble kid who has an extreme love for the sport. She’s has great leadership skills and is a student (of the sport). She’s just 16. She’s special.”

It would be easy for Jackson to get ahead of herself, to look beyond this time of her life and imagine competing in college or internationally. As important as it is to have goals, it’s just as important to remain in the moment and work to improve on a day-to-day basis. Jackson knows she’s in a spotlight, and there’s a responsibility that goes along with being at the top.

“It’s about staying humble,” she said. “I don’t get a big head when I talk about (my accomplishments). I stay humble.

“My coaches tell me to run with a purpose. I realize people with diabetes will look up to me as a role model. When I could see I could get over it, maybe they can look and say, ‘I can get over it, too.'”

Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at tmarkowski@statechampsnetwork.com with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Renaissance's Kaila Jackson, middle, paces the field on the way to winning the 200 meters at the 2019 MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals. (Middle) Jackson races through the final few steps of the 100 that day in finishing runner-up in that event. (Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)

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

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

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).]