MACOMB TOWNSHIP – Look at Kayla Dobies and one can see a vibrant young woman with an engaging personality that locks on to those around her.
Look at Dobies’ accomplishments, athletically and academically, and one will marvel at her ingenuity and perseverance.
Hidden are ailments that would prevent a lesser person from achievements that flow from Dobies in a variety of forms.
Dobies, 18, is a senior at Macomb Dakota and has been accepted to Princeton University. In addition to her studies, Dobies plans on competing collegiately in cross country and track and field. The high jump is her best event – her best is a jump of 5 feet, 7 inches. But she is also a fine distance runner. Dobies placed eighth in Lower Peninsula Division 1 her freshman season in the high jump and was all-state again her junior season as she placed fourth in the 800-meter run.
Her best cross country time is 18:27, a school record. She qualified for the MHSAA Finals in cross country her junior and senior seasons but failed to place. The reasons will become obvious later.
For six years she practiced taekwondo and holds a first and second degree black belt in the sport.
As a junior she started a robotics team at Dakota, but did not compete. Although Dakota did not fare well in the state competition this year, the team competed at the world championships, a four-day event held in late April, in St. Louis, and won. The name of the team is the Thunder Chickens, and among Dobies’ responsibilities was as an assistant mechanic. When one of the machines broke down, she would assist in fixing it, thus earning the nickname, ‘Baby Chicken’.
Dobies has a 4.07 grade-point average entering her final semester and scored a 33 on her ACT. She was named a winner this winter of the MHSAA/Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Award and was one of six finalists for the recently-awarded Detroit Athletic Club Female High School Athlete of the Year.
She plans on entering the pre-med program at Princeton and possibly majoring in neuroscience.
As impressive as is her list of accomplishments, Dobies often has had to miss competing because of her illnesses. Every day Dobies confronts them. She tries to hold them off with daily medication, and sometimes even that doesn’t work.
Topping this list, Dobies is an asthmatic. Offshoots are the allergies from which she suffers. She’s also anemic and suffers from hypoglycemia, a blood sugar disorder. She can’t eat candy. She can only consume pure sugar. And she can’t eat fast food or pizza, or other like fatty foods because of their trans-fatty acids.
It’s the pizza part that upsets Dobies most, even as that seems like one of the lesser obstacles she continuously must hurdle.
“I have every type of asthma you can imagine,” she said. “I use a breathing machine at night and two inhalers every day. I get allergy shots. I’m allergic to mites. I have to have special sheets on my bed to help prevent an attack.”
The attacks continue to occur. The reason she did not compete in robotics her junior year was her health. Most days, Dobies is fine. The medication she takes helps combat her diseases, but it’s not foolproof. When the seasons change, Dobies suffers most.
A leg injury kept Dobies from possibly making all-state in cross country her junior year, and this past November she suffered an asthma attack at the MHSAA Finals. Though cross country and running in general is one of her favorite sports, fall changing to winter is the worst season for Dobies.
“When others are improving their times, my times get worse,” she said. “I was in the hospital a couple of days during the cross country season. When I have an asthma attack, it’s not fun.”
Because of her condition, Dobies prefers to run in warm weather – the hotter the better. That’s why she’s hoping for warm weather, at least warmer weather, Saturday when Dakota competes at the Division 1 Track & Field regional at Warren Mott.
The spring didn't start well for Dobies. She suffered a pulled quadriceps (right leg) in the first meet of the season, and it wasn’t until three weeks ago that she could run the way she knows she can.
“I’m better now,” she said. “I’ve just got to get my times to drop.”
No one will doubt that she will. Dobies has always been highly motivated. This comes from her parents, Jeff and Jody Dobies, and she’s received a push from others including Dakota assistant track coach Tom Zarzycki. Jeff Dobies introduced his eldest daughter to soccer when she was 2 years old, and sports has been a big part of her life ever since.
“I watched the Olympics at Beijing and I saw the high jump,” she said. “I said, I can do that. So I asked my dad, what’s that? And he told me it was the high jump.”
Ever the inquisitive child, Dobies was inspired after viewing the Disney animated film “Mulan” to try martial arts.
“I’ve always liked sports,” she said. “I’m really, really passionate about everything. Take robotics and martial arts. I figure if you’re going to do something, do your best.
“Like running. I love to run. High jump is the reason I got into running. It gets down to a deep level. I just love running. I love running with my friends. I love running to compete.”
Whatever the task, whatever the challenge, anything Dobies dives into she gives it her best.
Her most recent project is experimenting with rats. It’s a class project, one she must complete to earn a grade. What she’s attempting to prove, with the aid of the rats, is that fear is innate.
“I’m still working on it,” she said. “I don’t expect to change the world.”
But she might.
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously 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@example.com with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Macomb Dakota's Kayla Dobies (14) rounds the bend ahead of three competitors during the 800 at last season's Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final. (Middle) Dobies stands with other Scholar-Athlete Award winners in March at the Breslin Center. (Top photo by Carter Sherline/RunMichigan.com.)
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."
The 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."
Leon 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."
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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).]