CEDAR FALLS — As Mackenzie Michael tried to ignore pain in her feet, she felt the weight of lofty expectations impacting her sophomore season on the Cedar Falls track and field team.
Michael missed the 2018 Drake Relays with severe blisters on her toes and found herself unable to build on a breakthrough freshman year capped by a Class 4A state title in the 800.
“It was very tough,” Michael said. “Not only the blisters were tough for me, but just mentally I was very nervous. Because I was the state champion the year before, I felt like I had to win every race I ran. … It impacted how I performed.”
Through a season that didn’t go as planned, Michael still found success. Her competitive fire surfaced as a sophomore during an 800-meter anchor leg that allowed the Tigers to win a state championship in the distance medley.
“It just gave me a boost of confidence through all the self-doubt,” Michael said. “It allowed me to see that I was still a great runner when doubt started to form in my mind.”
Also a three-time state cross country qualifier — placing as high as 14th individually in the 2017 state meet — Michael has taken a more calculated approach to her training entering this junior season. Nagging blisters are starting to fade, and her times are dropping.
Michael opened the year with titles in the 800 and 1,500 against a statewide indoor field at the Dickinson Relays. Last week, she finished second to Duke track and field recruit Carly King of Davenport Assumption, 56.39-57.51, in a 400-meter showdown in Davenport.
Only four Iowa girls clocked faster times that Michael’s 57.51 effort all last season.
A few days prior to her showdown with King, Michael anchored Cedar Falls to a sprint medley title with a time of 1:50.55 at Waukee that ranks second among this year’s state leaders. She closed that meet by anchoring a championship 4x400 relay that clocked the state’s fifth-fastest time.
“This year she worked so hard in the offseason,” said Cedar Falls coach Chris Wood. “She put in a ton of aggressive tempo work, working out harder, but also smarter than she ever has between cross country and track.
“She kind of came in saying to herself, ‘I’ve got something to prove. I want to go out and show that freshman year wasn’t a fluke.’ … She’s taken on a different mentality towards every race. She has a specific plan of what she wants to do and is trying to be really concentrated in that effort.”
Michael has been chasing down goals since elementary school.
Before she was winning state medals, Michael initially set her sights on a certificate awarded to the student in her gym class who recorded the fastest mile. Her dad helped set a goal of 7 minutes, 30 seconds. Michael ran a 6:41.
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That race helped trigger Michael’s pacing for racing. She drew support from her father, former Ironman triathlete Robert Michael, as they worked out together throughout junior high.
Mackenzie Michael has developed a unique skillset, able to run anywhere from a competitive 100 to a 3,000-meter race.
“She really has that natural foot speed,” Wood said. “She loves to sprint, but she loves going for longer runs, too.”
Added Michael, “With these races it’s a mix of speed and endurance, so it gives me more of a variety to choose from. They’re really fun races to run.”
Support from teammates has also helped Michael regain her competitive fire. Defending state high jump champion Auriona Kimbrough joins Michael with a sub one-minute in the 400, while Cedar Falls possesses a talented corps of sprinters within a team that may have the pieces to improve upon last year’s sixth-place state finish.
“I’m really appreciative of how she tries to push me every day in practice and tries to help me get better,” Michael said, addressing Kimbrough’s influence. “She really has made me a better athlete and person.”
Michael has major team and individual goals as she begins to eye a return to the Drake Relays, and eventually what she hopes will become a bounce-back state meet. Climbing the 800-meter podium is at the top of that list, while open 400 and 1,500 races along with relays remain viable options.
Michael says she’s received offers in-state and outside of Iowa to continue her track career in college. In addition to competing in track and field at the next level, Michael wants to attend a veterinary school.
“It would be very humbling to run at the collegiate level,” she added.
Wood remembers setting long-term goals for the program Michael’s freshman year. One of them was two words, “Be known.”
The versatile competitor has become a leader within a team that is poised to put itself on the map.
“She’s made our job easy,” Wood said. “Raw talent like that doesn’t come along often. I’m humbled to coach someone with that ability, but that doesn’t do justice to how hard she works.
“She’s one of those ones that impacts our program the next five to 10 years. We’ve got junior high kids coming to do workouts that are seeing her and some of the other girls run.”