Coming onto the Corona del Mar High track and field team as a sophomore, Karléh Wilson said it was tough at times last year.
She struggled to adjust after her family moved to Southern California from Gonzales, La. In some ways at CdM, she was the low girl on the totem pole.
The Sea Kings had several throwers ahead of Wilson. Jaycee Olsen (now at UCLA), Kyla Winkle and Jessica Imani all made the CIF Southern Section Division III finals in the discus; Olsen advanced to the CIF State Track and Field Championships.
Wilson showed flashes, but her year ended at the Pacific Coast League finals. She knew it wasn't good enough.
"It was kind of hard," she said. "I was the only sophomore, and every time I'd throw I wouldn't be happy with my throw. They'd be like, 'You're just a sophomore.' And I'd be like, 'Yeah, so? What is that supposed to mean? I still want to do well.'
"They'd just always keep saying that. It was stuck in my head, 'You're just a sophomore,' but I'd get really mad. I felt like I'm not just a sophomore. I'm Karléh, you know? Everyone was always comparing me with Jaycee, like 'Oh, you're going to be the next Jaycee.' It was kind of frustrating, because I want to establish my own name. I love Jaycee, but I wanted my own name."
She has her own name now. All of Orange County knows about Wilson after her performance April 16 at the Orange County Championships. Now a junior, she was second in the shot put (37 feet, 5 3/4 inches) and third in the discus (a personal-best 120-9).
Wilson hoped to win the shot put crown, which she captured at the meet last year at the frosh-soph level. But she couldn't be too upset after another personal-best in the discus. She's come a long way – more than 18 feet, to be exact – from the girl whose personal-best throw coming into the year was 102 feet.
That old mark may seem insignificant, but it is special to Wilson as well. It came almost exactly a year ago, April 22, 2010, in a league meet against San Juan Hills. It was the third anniversary of the death of Karléh's grandmother, Doris.
Now Wilson wears the day, No. 22, when she plays basketball for CdM. She's a two-year varsity player. Her younger brother Kai, a sophomore running back on the football team, also wears No. 22.
"Twenty-two is a special number for my family, and April 22 is a very special day for me and my family," she said. "I dedicated that [track meet] to her, and I was just really proud of myself. I did really well that day."
It's a very close family. Karléh's father, Kirk, moved the family from Louisiana almost two years ago now. He's a musician and works a lot out of Los Angeles.
Karléh said her older sister, Kamah, got homesick and went back to attend Southeastern Louisiana University. Her mother, Ava, is still back in Louisiana as well.
"I've always run track to make her proud, but she's still in Louisiana," Karléh Wilson said. "We're trying to get her out here. After every track meet I make sure I call my mom and tell her how I did. It's funny, because usually she doesn't even know what it means, like how far a distance is. But she's just really proud. She makes sure to tell all her coworkers."
Lately there's been plenty of good news to tell. But at first, Karléh said it was definitely tough coming to CdM. She had to change the way she talked because of her Southern accent, learning to enunciate her words and not talk as fast. She felt a long way from back home in Gonzales, the small town between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where they have the annual Jambalaya Festival.
"It was a major culture shock, especially being one of the only black kids at this school," she said. "At my old school, there were no minorities. It was like 50-50 [black and white]. It's just really different."
She can always feel at home when she's throwing, although she's also a sprinter. She's far from the lowly sophomore these days. Wilson and Imani are at the core of a solid CdM girls' throwing team. Her throwing coaches, Jim Driscoll and Isaias Morales, definitely see the potential.
They are working on the big picture, and Wilson's consistency. At the Laguna Hills Invitational, she sectored out (threw out of bounds) each of her throws. It was similar at a dual meet against Irvine earlier this year.
"She sectors out 130-foot discus throws," Morales said. "The Irvine coach was nice enough to measure it. It was literally half a foot off the sector line, so the Irvine coach was like, 'Hey, let's measure it just to see how far it is.' It was 130 feet exactly. So we know she can throw far. It was just two or three weeks ago that I told her, 'We need to slow it down and work on the form.' That's all we've been doing. As long as the technique is smooth and good, that's all that matters.
"I understand she wants to win. I understand she wants to be at the top, but I keep telling her, 'You've got to do it at the right moment.' What good is it if you win league all year, and then you lose in league finals? It doesn't matter."