Mikel Smith still has plenty of upside.
The defending NCAA Division II men’s high jump champion leads a contingent of four Saint Martin’s University athletes into this week’s national competition in Bradenton, Florida, but may not have come close to his peak yet.
Smith has always had extra challenges. He started competing in sports growing up in foster care and, later, he suffered through poverty within an adopted family.
“I really enjoyed sports,” Smith said. “Playing and practicing could keep me away from home until it was time to go to bed.”
Even this outdoor season, after winning the 2016 title at 7 feet, 1 inch and the 2017 indoor crown at 7-3 1/2, Smith has struggled a bit.
During March’s indoor meet in Birmingham, Alabama, he suffered a soft tissue bruise to his left – and plant – heel that kept him out of action early in the outdoor season.
“Injuries are inevitable if you’re always pushing yourself close to the edge,” SMU coach Jim Brewer said. “Sooner or later, you’ll fall off the cliff.”
Throughout the spring, Smith worked a graveyard shift for SMU’s office of public safety, patrolling the Lacey campus from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. Twice a week, he put in shifts at Haven House, a facility for troubled youth.
“He’s 100 percent healthy now, thanks to our trainer, Alice Loebsack,” said Saints’ jumps coach Kyle Stevenson, himself a former professional on the European track and field circuit.
“If he can get into a situation where he gets plenty of rest and has a chance to just train, he can be a true elite-level athlete.”
Despite winning the past two D-II high jump titles, Smith’s limited regular season has him seeded in a tie for ninth going into Saturday’s outdoor championships at 6-11, behind top-seeded Hunter Weeks of Grand Valley State, who has a mark of 7-1 1/2.
“I feel great going in, though,” he said. “I look at it as they have to out jump me, I don’t have to out jump them. I know what I can do, I have a plan. You have to focus on yourself.”
“You can’t worry about anybody else,” he said. “You have to beat the bar. In the end, the bar will always win.”
Stevenson believes Smith’s difficult upbringing — stints in the foster care system in both Kent and Mukilteo before being adopted by a family that eventually fell on hard times after moving to Oklahoma — became a plus.
“Mikel has intangibles you can’t teach, a toughness from going through a lot in life,” Stevenson said. “He has a lot of mental strength and perseverance.”
After playing football and mostly running the 800 and the mile for Muskogee High’s track team, Smith credits his high school coach, David Heath, for seeing his potential as a high jumper during his junior and senior years.
Brewer points to some natural gifts that also can’t be taught.
“He’s an extremely tall and gifted young man,” he said. “You’re either born with the genes or you’re not. He’s also got a really good ethic for hard work and an ability to rise in intense competition when the pressure is the highest.”
The first time Stevenson saw Smith jump, he saw those genes in action.
“He did something I’d never seen anyone do,” he said. “He raised his hips four inches or so in mid-flight. He has such a sense of body awareness.”
Smith is also aware of what it will take for him to realize his ambition of moving on to the pro circuit.
“I need to jump high enough to attract some sponsorship. That’s why this is one of the meets that will determine the rest of my career,” he said. “If I can jump 7-6 and qualify for USAs that would be a big step.”
He also has an idea what technical improvements he must make.
“I need to be fundamentally sound, focus on every step, make my run-ups more consistent and go straight up, instead of diving into the bar.”
When track and field becomes part of the past, Smith plans to move into a field that addresses the issues he faced in his past.
“I was in an orphanage briefly as a kid and it wasn’t being run properly at all,” he said. “I’d like to create one that has the feel of a college campus. Make sure it has good housing and a school, eventually a gym.”
While Smith will be the lone Saints male athlete to compete in Bradenton, three women have made the trip.
Sophomore Jona Spiller, a former Olympia High athlete, is seeded sixth in the women’s javelin, to be contested Saturday morning, with a mark of 151 feet. Teammate Deanna Avalos, a junior, is also in the field at 146-8. In Thursday’s hammer throw, senior Kirby Neale is seeded 12th at 190-5 1/2.