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 [email protected] 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.)

Preview: LP Girls Finals Welcome Back Stars, Hopefuls Ready to Join Them

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

June 1, 2023

The MHSAA Lower Peninsula Girls Track & Field Finals have showcased plenty of stars over the years, and Saturday’s meets will celebrate more with returning competitors owning a combined 22 individual championships won over the last three seasons.

But this season’s field also sticks out because of several hopefuls who appear on the verge of greatness as well, many of whom we highlight below.  

All four LP Finals will again be contested at Grand Rapids-area schools, with pole vault and long jump beginning at 9 a.m., race semifinals and the 3,200 relay at 10 a.m. and the rest of the running finals starting at noon. Tickets cost $11 and are available digitally only via GoFan.

MHSAA.tv will live-stream all four meets beginning at 10 a.m., viewable with subscription.

Following is a glance at team contenders and individuals to watch in all four divisions:

LP Division 1 at Rockford

Team forecast: After winning three straight LPD1 team titles, Oak Park finished second last season to Detroit Renaissance – which had finished second twice in a row before claiming its first title since 2007. Those two are the likely favorites again, and Renaissance won their Regional matchup two weeks ago 135½-108 as they combined to post the top two times in three relays from all LPD1 Regionals. Oak Park continues to surge with one of the top hurdler groups in recent memory, while Renaissance’s depth in elite sprinters has been unmatched despite graduating one of the all-time greats last spring. All of that said, keep an eye on Ann Arbor Huron too. The River Rats finished third last season, are paced by an elite sprinter and have the potential to pick up points in a variety of events.

Jayla Dace, Detroit Renaissance sophomore: After qualifying in the 200 and running on the winning 800 relay last season, Dace enters this weekend after running the fastest 100 (11.91) and fourth-fastest 200 (24.95) at LPD1 Regionals while also slated to run on two contending relays.

Arianne Olson, Holland West Ottawa senior: Last season’s 3,200 champion and 1,600 runner-up enters with the third-fastest 3,200 (10:48.40) from LPD1 Regionals and also again will run the 1,600 and on a contending relay.

Mackenzie Robinson, Ann Arbor Huron senior: She finished second in the 100 and 200 last season and ran on champion and runner-up relays, and she could be in for an even bigger finish after posting the second-fastest LPD1 Regional 100 (12.11) and 200 (24.74) and running on the third-fastest 400 relay two weeks ago.

Morgan Roundtree, Oak Park junior: Her sophomore-year Finals included a 300 hurdles title and runner-up finishes in the 100 hurdles and 800 relay. She enters this weekend with the fastest LPD1 Regional time in the 300 (41.86), third-fastest in the 100 hurdles (14.14) and running on two contending relays again.

Abigail Russell, Allen Park junior: She swept the throws as a sophomore and could be in line to do the same this weekend with the top LPD1 Regional throw in discus (148-3) by more than 12 feet and the second-farthest shot put (42-5) behind only Howell senior standout Sophie Daugard.

Kamryn Tatum, West Bloomfield freshman: She enters her first Finals having run the fastest 200 (24.70) and 400 (56.08) times in any LPD1 Regional, with those times fast enough to have finished third in those races at last year’s Finals.

Nonah Waldron, Oak Park senior: She’s finishing a career that’s included the last two 100 hurdles championships and a 300 hurdles title as a sophomore. She enters this weekend with the fastest LPD1 Regional time in the 100 hurdles (13.61), second-fastest to Roundtree in the 300 (42.70) and likely to run on the same two contending relays as that teammate.

LP Division 2 at Ada Forest Hills Eastern

Team forecast: The last five Finals have seen five schools win Division 2 once and three more schools finish second at least once. East Grand Rapids nearly doubled up the field last year, however, and power in distance races and relays could have the Pioneers on track again. New Boston Huron was fourth last season behind the scoring of Elizabeth Anderson and could follow her into contention, and Dearborn Divine Child has qualifiers in all but pole vault and a pair of relays expected to do exceptionally well.

Elizabeth Anderson, New Boston Huron senior: She won the 200 and 400 and was runner-up in the 100 last season to score 28 of her team’s 29 points, and she could take that over 30 this weekend entering with the fastest LPD2 Regional times in the 200 (24.93) and 400 (56.62), the second-fastest in the 100 (12.34) and as part of one of the fasted 1,600 relays.

Camryn Bodine, East Grand Rapids senior: Last season’s 800 champion ran the fastest LPD2 Regional time in that race (2:13.14) two weeks ago by nearly four seconds and will also run on two contending relays after helping hers to first, second and seventh places in 2022.

Janae Hudson, Marysville junior: She could move up substantially after placing third in discus and 10th in shot put last season, coming off the top LPD2 Regional shot put (41-4½) and second-longest discus toss (125-5).

Ella Jenkins, Warren Regina senior: The reigning champion in the 300 hurdles and runner-up in the 100 hurdles ran the fastest LPD2 Regional time in the 100 hurdles (15.14) and second-fastest in the 300 (47.55).

Drew Muller, East Grand Rapids junior: The reigning 1,600 champ and 800 fifth-place finisher – and LPD2 cross country champion in the fall – ran the fastest 1,600 LPD2 Regional time (5:03.32) and fourth-fastest 800 (2:17.88) and will also run on two contending relays after hers finished first and second last year.

Keyanna O’Tey, Sturgis sophomore: She qualified for the 100 in LPD1 as a freshman and could play a starring role Saturday entering with the fastest LPD2 Regional time in the 100 (12.10), second-fastest in the 200 (25.49) and as part of two contending sprint relays.

Natalie VanOtteren, Grand Rapids Christian junior: She finished seventh in the 3,200 and ran on a runner-up relay a year ago and enters this weekend with the fastest LPD2 Regional time in the 3,200 (11:09.76) and second-fastest in the 1,600 (5:07.06).

Jordyn Wright, Tecumseh senior: The reigning pole vault champion by a foot posted the top LPD2 Regional height (11-9) two weeks ago and is expected to run two relays as well.

LP Division 3 at Kent City

Team forecast: Hart and Pewamo-Westphalia both have won two championships over the last five seasons, and Hart was first and P-W second a year ago. Hart again has the mix of sprint, distance, field event and relay standouts to finish first, and P-W has nearly the same amount and variety. But they’ll have company. Lansing Catholic has strong contenders in five races and two relays, Olivet could score big in relays, field events and hurdles; and Onsted could jump up with a handful of potential winners as well.

Ryan Finstrom, Grayling junior: Last season’s discus champion and fourth-place shot put finisher returns this weekend looking for a discus repeat after throwing the fourth-farthest LPD3 Regional toss (119-1).

Addison Hovey, Hart sophomore: She played a big role in last year’s title run with runner-up finishes in high jump and as part of the 400 relay, and she’ll return this weekend with the top LPD3 Regional time in the 100 (12.38) and top high jump (5-3) plus as part of two relays.

Heidi Newhouse, Lawton junior: The reigning high jump champion also finished just outside scoring range in the 400 last season, and she’ll enter this weekend tied for the second-best LPD3 Regional high jump (5-1) and third-fastest 400 (59.76).

Ally Olszewski, Grand Rapids West Catholic senior: She won the pole vault last season by half a foot and her 10-3 LPD3 Regional vault two weeks ago was half a foot better than the field. She also posted the fourth-best LPD3 Regional long jump (15-9½) and will run the 200 and again on the 800 relay after helping the latter to fourth place a year ago.

Madison Osterberg, Jackson Lumen Christi junior: After finishing 800 runner-up and seventh in the 1,600 a year ago, plus running on the runner-up 800 relay, Osterberg enters with the fastest LPD3 Regional times in the 1,600 (4:59.62) and 3,200 (11:01.05), the second-fastest in the 800 (2:16.56), and she will also run on a contending 3,200 relay.

Emmry Ross, Onsted sophomore: Her Finals debut included championships in the 400 and as part of the 1,600 relay and a runner-up finish as part of the 800 relay. She returns with the top LPD3 Regional times in the 400 (57.07) and 800 (2:15.03) and as part of contenders in the 800 and 3,200 relays.  

Gloria Stepanovich, Benzie Central senior: The reigning long jump champion will return seeking a repeat after placing second at her Regional but only 1¼ inches off the lead.

LP Division 4 at Hudsonville

Team forecast: A close race came down to just a few points last season, with Muskegon Western Michigan Christian edging 2021 champion Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart by four. This could be close again – but with a different collection of contenders. Fowler, fourth last season, may be back in the mix with elite relays leading the way. Frankfort is back after finishing third and bolsters a strong field events group to go with relay strength. Hillsdale Academy could follow a strong distance group into contention, and Buckley should put up some points with a pair of stars. Portland St. Patrick is another interesting possibility with runners all over the meet and three contending relays.

Molly Brown, Addison sophomore: She had an impressive debut last season with two top-five relay finishes, a 10th in the 100 hurdles and fifth in the 300 hurdles. But this could be even better as she brings in the top LPD4 Regional times in the 100 hurdles (16.03) and 300 hurdles (46.82), the second-fastest in the 100 dash (12.98) and the seventh-best long jump.

Olivia Findlay, Marlette junior: Last season’s runner-up in the high jump and fifth-place finisher in the long jump is a favorite in both with the top LPD4 Regional performances in both at 5-5 and 16-11¾, respectively. She also posted the sixth-fastest 100 hurdles time (17.12) to qualify.  

Aiden Harrand, Buckley junior: She’s won the 1,600 the last two seasons, the 800 last year and finished fourth in the 3,200 as well, and was the LPD4 cross country champ in the fall. Her LPD4 Regional times in the 800 (2:19.15), 1,600 (5:06.52) and 3,200 (11:26.04) all topped those lists.

Anna Plum, Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart senior: She’s the reigning champion in the 300 hurdles and was part of winning and runner-up relays as well as a qualifier in the 100 hurdles last season. She could put up plenty of points again entering with the fourth-fastest LPD4 Regional times in the 100 (13.06) and 200 (26.75) and the third-fastest in the 300 hurdles (48.46).

Megan Roberts, Hillsdale Academy senior: After missing last season’s Finals with an injury, Roberts will get another chance to build on a sophomore debut that included a relay championship, two relay runner-up finishes and a sixth place in the 800. She will run on two relays that posted the fastest LPD4 Regional times in their respective races and also the 400 after racing to an LPD4 Regional-best 59.85 two weeks ago.

Natalie Wandrie, Indian River Inland Lakes senior: She finished seventh in the shot put and 11th in the discus last season but could be set for a big finish with the top LPD4 Regional discus toss of 124-3½ and the third-longest shot put (37-3). She’ll also run a relay.

PHOTO Oak Park’s Nonah Waldron leaps a hurdle during last season’s LPD1 Finals. (Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)