The Puget Sound roots Mikel Smith grew up on never left once he and three of his siblings were adopted through foster care and moved to a Oklahoma town of 38,000 in a Midwestern state split between Sooners and Cowboys.
“I was like, ‘Go (University of Washington),’ ” said Smith, Saint Martin’s University’s 7-foot high jumper, “and go Seattle.’”
He never played high school basketball, but now cheers for the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise he and the basketball world knew as the Seattle SuperSonics when he lived in Kent and Mukilteo as a youngster surrounded by uncertainty.
There’s no uncertainty now for the 21-year-old college junior, who became Saint Martin’s fourth track and field All-American two weekends ago after he tied for fifth at the NCAA Division II Indoor Track and Field Championships by jumping 6 feet, 91/2 inches.
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To understand Smith, you have to understand his past. Smith’s connection to Lacey and Saint Martin’s started three years ago when he met his biological father, William Haynes, for the first time at his graduation from Muskogee (Oklahoma) High School. Smith’s childhood through age 11 was spent between Kent and Mukilteo primarily through foster care, and memories of his birth parents weren’t positive. Mom was into drugs and dad was imprisoned, he said, but relationships with them are starting to rekindle.
Dating back to being a toddler, Smith remembers little discipline at home before being place in foster care at age 4.
“We’d do whatever we wanted because nobody would tell us any different,” he said.
Rhonda and EJ Smith adopted Smith — along with twin sister Karolyn and two other siblings, Shay and Jacob — after five years as their foster parents, and the 2,000-mile uprooting from Mukilteo to Muskogee.
Sports, particularly track and field, was an outlet for Smith. A two-sport athlete at Muskogee High School, a Class 6A school two hours from Oklahoma City, he also was a wide receiver and defensive back in football.
David Heath coached Smith in football and track and field at Muskogee, where Smith jumped 6-6 at state as a senior to place sixth in the 6A boys high jump. In 27 years of coaching, Heath puts Smith among his favorite athletes, and it goes beyond his sports accomplishments.
“His story,” Heath said, “you could write a book about.”
Heath still recalls Smith working two jobs, walking to and from school, and being the one-of-a-kind dedicated athlete who was the first to arrive and last to leave on a daily basis.
And in April of Smith’s senior year — when his high-jump marks took off because of what Smith described as a lot of self-teaching through internet training videos — Smith became one of only six jumpers statewide at the time to clear 6-8, and he did it at his home Rougher Invitational to set a meet record.
Heath was like a proud papa that day. He immediately stopped the meet, and grabbed a wireless microphone to inform the crowd of the achievement.
Smith received a standing ovation.
“For a kid like that,” Heath said, “it meant the world.”
Smith’s high-jump marks were college-worthy, he thought. “I wanted to try to do this in college,” he said. His half-sister, Lateah Holmes, a Fife High graduate now high jumping at Washington State, was being recruited by Saint Martin’s around the time he was seeking colleges and meeting his birth father for the first time.
Returning to the Puget Sound region to be reunited with extended family, and competing collegiately at a nearby university was a win-win for Smith, who redshirted in 2013 and did not compete last season.
First-year Saint Martin’s assistant coach Burke Bockman arrived in Lacey last summer after nine seasons at Utah. Without question, he said, Smith is a Division I-caliber high jumper and instantly saw Smith’s potential when fall workouts began. While the technique needed fine-tuning, he couldn’t believe Smith’s personal-best jump was only 6-8.
“I knew he was a 7-foot high jumper with some of the drills we were doing,” Bockman said. “It was driving me crazy — I couldn’t wait to jump (at a meet).
“He showed me instantly at the first meet, it was obvious.”
The wait — and results — didn’t take long. First came 6-9 in mid-December, then Smith cleared 7-1/2 at the University of Washington Preview on Jan. 17, a personal-best jump by 31/2 inches in front of nearly a dozen family members, many of whom previously never saw him compete. The mark not only set a school record, but he became the first Great Northwest Athletic Conference athlete to clear 7 feet.
“I was full of adrenaline and ready to go,” Smith said. “I wanted to show them how hard I’ve been working.”
The 7-foot high jump mark, Bockman said, is an equivalent to a male running a sub-4-minute mile.
Smith said having a coach with Bockman’s background and knowledge has led him to not only recognize his errors, but help him become a better jumper.
“Coach Bockman is the best coach I’ve had for the high jump,” Smith said. “There’s so many things about approach and in-the-air technique. I’m excited for the outdoor (season) to be here and to go to (Allendale), Michigan for nationals in outdoor as well.”
Heath, Smith’s high school coach in Muskogee, remembers the first time he saw Smith as a high schooler — a pencil-thin 100-pound freshman. And while Smith wasn’t physically mature as a high school senior, according to Heath — “he didn’t have facial hair,” he recalled — the coach isn’t surprised by Smith’s successes.
“My whole deal is I coach champions for life,” Heath said, “and to me, he’s a champion at life.”