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Benson's dual threat lives life in the fast lane

Combination of Rose Festival events, track and field will keep Tech senior Jasmin McKenzie on the run


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Benson High track and field star Jasmin McKenzie gets guidance from her grandfather, Leon McKenzie, who happens to be her coach.When a “pageant grandma” and a legendary track and field coach are your grandparents and guardians, adaptation is the name of the game.

And 18-year-old Jasmin McKenzie has been adapting — to different places and personas — her whole life.

Jasmin was born in Portland, but her parents split up when she was in third grade and she moved to Mississippi with her mom. After living all across Mississippi, and in California for a brief time, she returned to Portland before her junior year at Benson High in 2012 to live with her grandparents and focus on her favorite sport — track and field.

Now Jasmin — part pageant girl, part tomboy — is both Benson’s Rose Festival princess and a strong contender to win district and state track titles, if scheduling conflicts don’t get in the way.

As of Monday, she was trying to get clearance from the Rose Festival to miss a couple of events so she can compete in the Portland Interscholastic 5A district meet and state track and field championships.

“Hopefully the Rose Festival will understand and let her do what she’s worked her whole life for” says Benson coach Leon McKenzie, Jasmin’s grandfather. “She shouldn’t have to look back 35 years from now and wonder what she could have done (in track and field).”

Jasmin’s dual talents aren’t surprising to her grampa. Leon says pumping iron in the weight room to run faster and jump farther doesn’t detract from a girl’s grace and charm.

“Some of my greatest young women, charismatic and beautiful, are some of the strongest in the weight room — so you can throw that out the window. That’s some stupid old myth,” he says.

Jasmin, 5-2, bench presses 165 pounds, squats 185 and power cleans 150 — all with a powerhouse smile.

“Boys don’t like to see her in the weight room,” Leon says, “because she lifts more (weight) than most of the boys.”

Jasmin has been seriously lifting for only a couple years, but she has been a pageant mainstay most of her life. She started when she was age 3 or 4, stopped at 13 and resumed competing a couple of years ago.

But even if she is voted Rose Festival queen, she still won’t be the biggest pageant winner in her family. That honor goes to her aunt, Sharitha McKenzie, who in 2006 became the second black to win Miss Oregon and also was a Rose Festival princess.

A domino effect followed.

“Everyone in our family started doing pageants. It’s just what we do,” Jasmin says.

Leon has one other granddaughter and two daughters hooked on the competitions.

“My wife was the driver of that,” he says. “I just kind of kick back.”

“He doesn’t like pageants,” Jasmin says.

The travel can be expensive.

“We spend a lot of money doing pageants,” Leon says. “Sometimes money we didn’t have. But my wife has a passion for it.”

Leon does believe, however, that pageants offer intrinsic benefits that help the girls for the rest of their lives.

“It’s the skills — answering questions, thinking quickly, impromptu,” he says. “From that aspect, it’s more than just a beauty pageant.”

On a typical day, Leon helps Jasmin perform Olympic lifts in the weight room and then coaches her jumping form. After track practice, Jasmin immediately switches gears and goes into Rose Festival court mode.

“This whole month, we’re doing wardrobe fittings and dinners and getting to know each other,” she says. “Coming from practice, going home, getting dressed, getting pretty, going there, having to do homework ... it’s a lot to worry about.”

Says Leon: “Everyone is always hollering at Jasmin, ‘You have to hurry up and do this, you have to hurry up and do that.’ She’s like, ‘I know.’ ”

The princesses will be even busier in May, with community events, meetings with business leaders and visits to senior living centers, youth organizations and civic groups among the activities on their six-day-a-week schedule.

To Leon’s delight, Jasmin is even more focused on winning state track and field championships than capturing the queen’s crown.

“I want to be queen,” she says, “but track is my passion.”

This spring, Jasmin wants to hit 18 feet, 3 inches in the long jump, post a 33-foot triple jump and run the 100-meter dash in 12.5 seconds. Her prep career bests are 17-4, 35-3 and 12.75.

Last year, she finished third in the Class 5A long jump and tied for 11th in the triple jump at Hayward Field. She won the PIL 5A long jump (and the 4x100 relay) and was second in the 100 and triple jump.

This year, she hopes to finish first at state in both jump.

“It’s within her wheelhouse,” McKenzie says. “In the long jump, she must get good speed and get a good response off the board. In the triple jump, it’s just a matter of execution. She has all of the physical capabilities.”

In fewer than two years at Benson, Jasmin has transformed from the new kid at school to one of its most involved students. She is captain of the track and field team and has been captain of the volleyball team and a cheerleader.

She says she was astounded by how welcoming everyone was on her first day of school. It helped to be related to Leon — a PIL lifer with 30 accomplished years as track coach at Benson and 20 as a school counselor on top of his own athletic years with the Techmen.

“When they found out (Leon) was my grandpa,” she says, “everyone was like, ‘Oh, let me show you around.’ Being a

McKenzie is a perk in itself.”

But it does come with amplified expectations. “It’s pressure, but a good pressure,” she says.

Leon’s coaching style includes its own expectations for his athletes.

“I’m not a dictator, I’m a counselor, so I like to hear what kids have to say,” he says. “But at the end of the day, at the track I expect them to do something, because we’re used to being champions here.”

Jasmin has a similar leadership mantra.

“I’m friendly,” she says. “People like me, they can relate to me, but when it’s time to do stuff, I have to be a little more assertive.”

Leon is proud of his Benson teams — including 11 state championships (seven girls, four boys), seven runner-up finishes, 10 different girls 100-meter state champions and so much more — but says he gets more satisfaction from helping boys and girls become happy and successful.

“We’ve had some heavy hitters on this team from all different races, kids from the wrong side of the fence and single-parent homes doing great stuff,” he says.

Leon points to a 90 percent-plus track and field team graduation rate, with athletes who are doctors, social workers, teachers and lawyers, as his biggest accomplishment as a coach.

“The goal of coaching,” he says, “is to influence, encourage and get people from point A to point B.”

Along the way, he has coached countless Division-I track stars, including Deborah Jones, Sara Collier, Brandi Probasco-Canda, Nate Anderson, LaVon Pierce, Peter Pritchard and Eric Bailey, to name a few.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jasmin McKenzie, a top sprinter and jumper on Benson Highs track and field team, gets some tips from coach/grandfather Leon McKenzie during a workout at the school.Leon was a stellar, versatile athlete at Benson, too. He was drafted in baseball, but opted to be a running back for Oregon State and run in track meets when baseball games were rained out. He had All-American aspirations, but injuries prevented him from reaching his potential.

“I think it probably wasn’t in the cards for me. What I’m doing now was probably my destiny,” he says.

Leon is planning to step down after this season.

“I’ve pretty much made up my mind,” he says. “What goes up must come down. My father always said it was important to know when to leave the dance.

“I’ll still be around the community, but running a program is a whole different animal, and nothing good is going to happen at Benson without you putting your whole heart and effort into it.”

At OSU, Leon majored in health and physical education, taking applicable classes such as physiology and kinesiology. After college, one of his friends, who coached track and field at Crescent Valley High, asked Leon to help with his team. He attended countless coachng clinics and, after 38 years, he is still coaching.

Following in her grandfather’s footsteps, Jasmin plans to attend Oregon State and major in clinical psychology. She wants to become a school counselor.

“I like to help people and talk to people,” she says. “I’m not the type of person who likes to just sit on a computer.”

She also wants to run track at OSU.

For now, though, Jasmin is preparing for both the state track and field championships May 22-24 in Eugene and the Rose Festival Queen’s Coronation June 7 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

The track is where Jasmin will place the most pressure on herself.

“If I don’t win in track, it’s my fault,” she says. “But if I don’t win queen ... everybody else there deserves it just as much as I do.”