It was cold and rainy on April 29, 2016, and Grand Blanc’s Quiara Wheeler was scared.
The line to make to even have your throw measured in the discus at the Charlie Janke Track & Field Invitational in Jackson was 80 feet, farther than her personal best.
“I was really nervous, because I couldn’t throw very far,” she said. “I threw an 88-4 and was really excited. The week after that I started throwing farther in practice. (Grand Blanc throwing coach Garner Pleasant) and I figured out I was holding it wrong the whole season, then I figured out the hand placement and my footwork.”
After that, she took off.
Wheeler went from scared to be short of the minimum measurement to MHSAA champion in a little more than 30 days, throwing 136 feet, 2 inches on June 4 to win the Lower Peninsula Division 1 title.
“Sometimes they will get a big improvement in the disc because all of the sudden it just clicks,” Grand Blanc girls track & field coach Andy Taylor said. “But it usually takes at least a year or more to do that. To improve 50 feet from the end of April to the state meet, I’ve never heard of that.”
Wheeler improving her personal best by more than 60 feet in one season, and her quick ascension to the top of the state’s pecking order in the discus are actually easier to explain than you would guess.
It was a simple formula: extraordinary talent meets proper form – or close to it, anyway.
“What God has put in her, I can’t put in her,” Pleasant said. “She’s an athlete.”
Wheeler doesn’t just throw for the Bobcats, she also long jumps, with a personal best of 16 feet, and has been on the sprint relays.
She holds a third-degree black belt in martial arts, and her coaches feel that background has helped her to quickly pick things up on the track.
“She’s used to putting in the work and having discipline,” Taylor said. “At the state meet, as she was throwing, I happened to look right in her eyes, and you could tell that she was totally focused.”
While her improvement was lightning fast, it was also gradual, and not without some bumps in the road. In early May, her throws crept into the low 100s – 100-4, 102-1, 113-11 – from May 3 to 10.
Before the Kensington Lakes Activities Association meet, Pleasant decided to add a full spin to Wheeler’s arsenal. She faulted three times, however, and did not record a throw.
“I told her, ‘Forget about it, put it behind you,’” Pleasant said. “When we get ready for the Regional, we’re going to do the South African (technique). At the Regional, she throws the discus 120 feet with a legal South African, and that had to go about 150 feet straight in the air and dropped.
“We had two weeks before the state meet, so all we did is work on the full rotation. That’s all we did for two full weeks.”
The new technique helped Wheeler reach 132 feet in the preliminary rounds of the Division 1 meet, easily putting her into the Finals.
Still, the newcomer to the big stage felt the nerves.
“When it came to the Finals, I was by myself and I was trying to calm myself down the whole time,” Wheeler said. “It was kind of overwhelming at first because all of the girls were so good and I was like, ‘How did I make it to the Finals?’”
Wheeler won by five feet, with no one else topping even her preliminary throw.
Her rapid rise caught the eyes of college coaches, and she said she has scholarship offers from Western Michigan University and Heidelberg University in Ohio. Taylor said college coaches are excited about how much more she can grow.
“I actually never really thought about (throwing in college),” she said. “This was before I was good. When the season was going on, I realized maybe I can do this. But I definitely want to continue this in college.”
Pleasant and Taylor both feel Wheeler is only beginning to tap into her potential as a thrower. She’s dedicated her offseason to getting better in the discus, which doesn’t bode well for those trying to catch her.
“I’ve just been training every day, pretty much since October – I also trained in the summer,” she said. “I’ve been lifting weights, and I’m definitely stronger than I was last year. I work out with two other boys, and they push me because they’re stronger than me. I go in and watch videos, footage of me sometimes and how bad my form was. Coming into the season, I’m hoping to be more consistent with my throws.”
Wheeler doesn’t seem worried that she’ll now have a target on her back as the returning Finals champion. In fact, she’s excited to beat her previous achievements, which is what drew her to track in the first place.
Pleasant has her aiming for the stars.
“I told her, ‘You should be setting your sights on the best marks in the state,’” Pleasant said. “That’s what we’re shooting for, having the best marks in the state. It’s not about state, it’s about going out and trying to have some of the best marks in the nation if you can.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Blanc’s Quiara Wheeler tosses the discus during last season’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals. (Middle) Wheeler enjoys a moment away from the throwing circle. (Photos by John Brabbs/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
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July 14: Portage Central Champ Rolls to Vanderbilt, Writing Next Chapter in Alabama - Read
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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).]