By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Sami Michell knows her starts could be better. And she's sure she can improve her arm position when she’s going over hurdles.
The Reed City junior is a self-admitted perfectionist. And she’s already thinking about next season.
The rest of Michigan should watch out.
Michell established herself as one of the top hurdlers in MHSAA history at Saturday’s Division 3 Final while becoming the first in Lower Peninsula girls history to win four events at a championship meet since Mason County Eastern’s Maria Shoup in 1979. And she’s got a few more goals she’d like to achieve before moving on to a future that's looking brighter with every stride.
"I'm always thinking about next year and what I want to do, the times I want to run -- even after I won four events Saturday," Michell said. "I want to run a faster 200 and get the Division 3 record, and I want to get the all-division record in the 100-meter hurdles. It's just not hard for me to think about it. I know there are things I don't do perfectly."
Michell gets a Second Half High 5 this week as arguably the brightest of an incredible group of stars who combined to break 19 meet records during Saturday's Finals.
She set Division 3 milestones in three events at Comstock Park – the 100 hurdles (13.84 seconds), 300 hurdles (42.23) and long jump (18-6.5). Her 300 hurdles time also broke the all-Finals record set by Benton Harbor’s Carolyn Ferguson in 1984.
The four championships gave her eight total with a season left to compete. She just missed winning four in 2011 as well – she finished runner-up in the 200, five hundredths of a second back. But her mom Vikki, also Reed City’s girls track and field coach, knew something special was coming long before Sami’s first high school competition.
At a youth meet when Michell was 10 or 11, she won the long jump – despite being so much smaller than her opponents that when she climbed to the top step of the medal stand, she still stood shorter than the runner-up next to her but a level below.
Soon after, Michell began pulling out her smaller 12-inch hurdles during her parents’ practices – dad Brent is the Reed City boys coach – and during seventh grade, she was able to switch from four-step to three-step hurdling. That step was a significant one in helping her go from good to great.
In her first high school race, Michell broke her mom’s school record in the 100 hurdles that had stood since 1987.
“She had made the finals (as a youth) but never won sprints. But I knew as a coach, if I could get her to love hurdles, with her speed, if she perfected her hurdling form, she’d go a long way,” said Vikki Michell, who also ran at Ferris State. “I never honestly dreamed she’d go (this far).”
In some key ways, Michell is a natural for hurdles and jumps. She’s 5-foot-8, but with more than half of her height in her legs. She’s pushing 30 inches in the vertical jump, good enough to touch the metal that connects the rim to the backboard on a basketball hoop. She’s been her volleyball team’s setter since freshman year, and this fall also began playing middle blocker.
But her rise to elite didn’t come without work to back up that talent – fueled by that aforementioned attention to detail.
Reed City is about two hours drive from the nearest indoor track facility, so Michell spends winters running the 75-meter straightaway of her school’s main hallway. The uncharacteristic warm winter allowed her to continue training on the school’s track into January, but often she competes in winter indoor meets to also take advantage of a rare opportunity to practice hurdles and long jump.
She’s also doing some heavy lifting, literally, taking a class daily and focusing on squats and other lifts that have increased her leg strength significantly over the last two years.
“She’s a dedicated person. She doesn’t do anything halfway, I can say, as both her coach and her mom,” Vikki said.
As a child, If Sami made any kind of mis-mark on a math assignment, she’d tear it up and start over – but got over that after realizing how much extra homework she was doing. She's ranked first academically in her class, with a 4.0, and for a long time she did everything she could extra to get 100 percent in every class. These days, she's decided she'll be good with a 95, as long as it still gets her an A.
She'll work on track skills with both parents, but does plenty of research on her own watching YouTube videos of the best from her sport.
Michell likes winning, like anyone else. But she's possibly more driven by distaste for losing.
"I get frustrated. Kinda disappointed and mad at the same time," she said.
"I guess I just hate losing when other people just think they're fast. It's so much fun to just beat them."
And she can do so in more ways than what she showed Saturday. Michell also is the fastest in school history in the 400 with a time of 56.83. She ran the 800 only once, in 2:24.9, and she’s run the 100 three times, the fastest in 12.39. Those 400 and 100 times also would've been good enough for first place at this Division 3 Final.
Clemson, Michigan State and Stanford are among those showing the most early interest in her post-high school plans, and she'll likely hear from many more when college coaches can contact her later this summer.
Click to read more about Michell's track family connection and future plans.
PHOTO: Reed City's Sami Michell (center) edged Bridgeport's Kimberly Balls (left) in the 200-meter race at the Division 3 Final at Comstock Park. (Photo courtesy of 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."
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).]