LaQuisha Jackson signed up for the west coast in early February. Howard Academy's star sprinter had the Vols and the Gators waiting in line. She declined.
Then, as soon as she signed the papers, the question came flying.
Why San Diego State?
Howard coach Jennifer Mitchell was bombarded, too.
Why would you let her go there?
For the coach, the answer is simple.
“(Jackson) is in love with the idea,” Mitchell says. “She knows what she wants to do and she’s completely comfortable with her decision. So as long as she’s comfortable and she’s happy, I was like, ‘I’ll back you 100 percent.’”
For the athlete, the answer is layered.
When Jackson and Mitchell sat down in January, with the schools and the offers laid on a table, they all looked the same to Jackson. Line after line, the promises were exciting, but nearly identical—a full ride, a top-level track program.
Jackson prayed about it, and she feels like San Diego is the right fit.
“That was the hardest, most stressful thing for me,” Jackson said. “I was more focused on what school I had to go to than my education (at Howard).”
San Diego State offered something Tennessee and Florida never could. The distance brought with it an element of uncertainty. The unknown led to intrigue.
“If I’ve got a great opportunity to go all the way across Asia, I’m going to go,” Jackson said.
The confidence to step away from her hometown can be traced to the track.
Jackson made her first trip to Disney World in March along with five teammates for the Walt Disney World Invitational. It was Mitchell’s search for competition for Jackson that spurred the team to raise money for meets in Knoxville and at Austin Peay over the last few years.
AAU events have sent her around the region and the scholarship offer from the Aztecs afforded her a visit to California.
Jackson's old community is now left screaming, ‘Why are you going so far away?’
“But to her, it’s like another trip,” Mitchell said. “It’s like, ‘I’ve gone to different places before, I’ll be OK.’”
The talent providing Jackson such opportunities is glaring.
Her personal best in the 100 meters—11.76 seconds, which she ran as a sophomore in the state track meet—would already put her in fourth on the list of all-time San Diego State marks. To put it into a southern context, 11.46 is faster than any Lady Vol, unaided by wind, has run the 100 since 2000.
“She can go and do whatever she wants to do,” Mitchell said. “Her potential is like ... the sky.”
This spring, though, Mitchell has been fighting to protect that potential. In warm-ups before the 100-meter final at Disney World, Jackson felt a tug in her groin. When the gun sounded, she felt a sharper pain. In her words, she “limped” to the finish line in 12.27 seconds and still won the race, but hasn’t competed since. Wednesday afternoon, Mitchell was still debating whether or not Jackson would run in the Best of Preps meet on Friday. Realistically, next Tuesday’s state qualifying meet at Red Bank will be Chattanooga’s next glimpse at Jackson.
“It’s kind of upsetting, but at the same time, I have to take care of my body,” Jackson said. “If I have to, I’m going to wait for college to run. They’ll take care of healing this.”
Jackson will be in San Diego sooner than she originally planned. Persuaded by Mitchell, she enrolled in a summer school session, and will be in California on July 1. With the drastic change in scenery, Mitchell thinks it will be beneficial to get acclimated to the surroundings and the academics first, before adding daily workouts.
Jackson already has plans to major in sports management and architecture.
“I’m excited and nervous at the same time,” Jackson said. “But mostly excited.”
Talking easily inside an almost empty Howard gym Wednesday afternoon, Jackson was undaunted. She’ll be leaving behind her mother and a younger sister, but she hopes to bring back a success story.
That’s the final piece in Jackson’s answer to the question she’s been asked so many times.
“I hate to leave (my family) because I love them dearly, but this is a new experience,” Jackson said. “It’s ok to get out of your comfort zone and go somewhere you’ve never been. Then when you go somewhere, you can come back and tell them. ... I was raised in development housing, so I know how rough it can be for kids like me. It would be an honor for me to come back and help other kids. Just because your momma didn’t do this or your daddy didn’t do this, doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”
Jackson is already picturing her graduation from San Diego State in 2016. By then, she hopes the thought of an inner-city girl picking the west coast over the southeast won’t be so shocking. She hopes they’ll be worried about her next set of travel plans.
The 2016 Olympics are held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.