Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
If you ever run into Arielle McKenzie, somewhere like a local coffee shop, you’ll see a 14-year-old who loves to wear designer T-shirts with trendy sneakers. You’ll notice her charming smile, her preference of smoothies, her slightly shy demeanor, and mild TikTok addiction. You might even discern her Black-Filipino background.
What you won’t see on first glance: how fierce and gritty she races on the track. At her young age, she already has a list of running achievements and records behind her: She’s an eight-time track and field national champion, 17-time track and field All-American, five-time cross-country All American, five-time USA Track & Field Southern California Athlete of the Year, and a record-holder for the fastest 1500 meter on the track for 11–12-year-old girls (4:36:69).
What you might not observe if you see McKenzie in that coffee shop is the possibility that you could be looking at a once-in-a-generation runner.
Seeing is Believing
McKenzie never thought she would become a runner during her childhood. Perhaps as a Southern California rite of passage, she was shuttled to numerous modeling auditions when she was a toddler until her early teens.
At age 6, her father, Mintoa McKenzie, signed up her brother for a youth track club. McKenzie also joined with no expectations, and after a year of running, she was determined to quit the sport. She did not enjoy it. She was often lapped by the older girls and left crying during the warm-up.
A cash incentive changed her running trajectory. Her father offered her $50 if she could stay another year, and $100 if she made it to nationals. By the end of the second year, she realized her own potential when she took third in the 1500-meter and second in the 800-meter against other 7–8-year-old girls at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Nationals.
A USATF event in 2014, when she was 8, sparked an audacious dream. As an Athlete of the Year, McKenzie received an invitation to attend the USATF Jessie Owens and Jackie Joyner-Kersee banquet in Orange County. “I was so excited and thought I was going to meet Sanya Richards-Ross at the banquet. I had no idea Allyson Felix was also coming,” she says.
Having followed both Richards-Ross and Felix, McKenzie was shocked when the organizers asked her to interview Felix. “I was so nervous… I totally don’t remember what I asked or what she answered,” she says.
During the drive back home, McKenzie told her father, “I want to be just like Allyson Felix. I want to compete in the Olympics.”
Even though McKenzie is not a sprinter like Felix, Felix’s high school achievements, including taking second at the Nike Indoor Nationals as a sophomore, a state title in the 200-meter event, World Youth Championship gold medals, and smashing several high school records as a senior, made McKenzie believe that she could demonstrate a similar level of excellence.
Meeting Felix personally helped her believe that her journey would be one that connects her to a larger legacy of Black women in track, including her other role models, Athing Mu and Raevyn Rogers. She started to believe that she could compete at the world stage one day, “because they all look like me.”
In 2018, McKenzie set a goal to break the 11–12-year-old girls’ record of 4:41. Her parents went all-in in support: Her father notified the USATF to ensure the course would be record-ready with the precise placement of cones and timers; her mother had her phone ready to record an epic performance. The morning before they arrived at Cerritos College, McKenzie’s father was running late and her nerves were building. “During the whole season, I was going 4:55 for the 1500-meter. I dropped to 4:53 once. I wasn’t really sure if I could [break the record],” says McKenzie.
Her father had a bit more confidence. When the gun went off, McKenzie led the whole SoCal USATF Championship race: “I had Sadie [Engelhardt] right behind me for the first three laps of the race. I was terrified. But now looking back, she helped me break the record. I dropped her with the last 300 meters to go.” McKenzie recalls the highest moment of her running career so far with a sense of joy and pride.
When Mintoa saw his daughter’s coach jump up and down on the track, he knew that she had broken the record. But when the family found out she decimated the record by almost 5 seconds, they were blown away.“We had expected her to break the record, but not by that much of a margin,” says McKenzie’s club coach, Mike Bryson, who is the founder and head coach of Pacific Coast Shockwaves, a youth track and field and cross-country club.
Since the founding of the club in 2014, Bryson and the coaching staff helped the club members win 174 Junior Olympic gold medals. Even with an incredibly strong record like this, he was still amazed at McKenzie’s performance.
“Covid was a huge set-back for the club and all the athletes,” says Bryson. Facility shutdowns affected many of his youth athletes. “But then you have focused athletes like Arielle, who never stopped training.”
In July 2021, McKenzie competed at the USATF Junior Olympics again at University of North Florida and won the 1500-meter and 4 x 800-meter relay events.
Not Quite Your Williams’ Father
It’s hard to talk about McKenzie’s running without her father. “I became a coach because of her,” Mintoa says. He started coaching track and field and now specializes in the long jump at La Cañada High School, where his daughter is a sophomore.
“I see my role as the Chief Motivator in the family,” he says. High expectations? Check. The house rule is for all the kids to maintain a 3.5 GPA or higher to participate in sport. Unwavering support for all the activities? Check. Mintoa shuttles all four kids around for different sports. Commitment to excellence? Check. The three older McKenzie children all perform competitively.
To best support McKenzie’s running career, Mintoa, once a stand-out track athlete himself, acquired the USATF Level 1 coaching certificate, both to better help McKenzie develop as a runner and to have a constant presence in her educational and athletic life.
Mintoa was the first to spot his daughter’s potential as a runner. He was the dedicated father who watched his toddler run up a hill outside of their house several times a day without tiring. Once McKenzie joined the Pacific Coast Shockwaves, he was also the first to notice that her strength might lie in the 800-meter and 1500-meter events, and not in the shorter sprints. “Black runners don’t need to all be sprinters,” says Mintoa.
Mintoa looks up to Black athletes’ fathers like Richard Williams (Serena and Venus Williams’ father) and Leonard Francois (Naomi Osaka’s father). Yet he is also a firm believer of letting his children make their own decisions on their athletic careers.
“Arielle’s mom and I let her try all kinds of sports, flag football, basketball… and we go fishing as a family… I believe that my kids can be great at anything. If one day Arielle wakes up and decides that running is not for her, I will support her. My goal is her well-being and excellence. Yet where this excellence lies, it will be up to her.”
This philosophy puts the power and freedom in the athlete’s hands. “I hope I’m teaching Arielle how to make good decisions,” says Mintoa. To teach a talented and driven young athlete like McKenzie, Mintoa emphasizes both sharpening the edge and rest and recovery. “We always max out on rest time during off-season.” The McKenzie family is often seen enjoying their Six Flags season pass on weekends with no meets.
More than anything else, Mintoa takes his role as a father seriously. “This country has a systemic way of taking Black fathers away from their homes, starting from the founding mechanism of slavery to the War on Drugs,” he says.
Since age 18, Mintoa has resolved to be a present and active father. He wanted to create a space where his daughter could leverage sports as personal growth: getting into the college of her dreams, building self-esteem, processing tough emotions, and practicing accountability.
The desire to create space and to thrive under an environment built on a severely flawed foundation also came from McKenzie’s maternal side. Her grandfather, Bernardo Cerezo, was the first Filipino American Navy Seal. He enlisted in the US Navy in 1968, as a pathway to citizenship, through the Luce-Celler Act, signed by President Truman in 1946.
Cerezo was also the first to serve on the elite Seal Team Six, officially known as the United State Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DevGru). Though the family never knew any of his missions because of high classification, they were immensely proud of his accomplishments.
McKenzie carries the family legacy of creating space, equality, and opportunities for self and for others forward. “Besides the natural talent Arielle possesses, we love having her on the team because iron sharpens iron,” says Chris Matarese, La Cañada High School’s head track and field coach. “She’s a great teammate to everyone.”
Bryson recalls an incident at the Junior Olympics when McKenzie was 13. “She was the number 1 ranked 800 meter, 1500 meter, and 3000 meter runner in the country. Instead of some individual races she could’ve won, she chose to do relays for the team, knowing that they would not win. I almost had to convince her otherwise. She was very keen on putting the team first. This quality will pay huge dividend in life.”
With the freedom to choose her own path and family and team support behind her, McKenzie dreams big. Her ambition is to be the first American woman to win gold at the 1500-meter event at the Olympics. “With the right coaching and right program, it is possible,” says Andy Rodemich, La Cañada High School’s head cross-country coach. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to see her at the 2028 Olympics in our home turf Los Angeles? I certainly hope so.”