The 1,000-watt smile is still the same. So, too, is the jaw-dropping ability on the track and the relentless determination to realize a dream she has chased for years.
But the LaQuisha Jackson who has returned home to train for the U.S. Olympic team trials ahead of next summer's Tokyo Games is no longer the shy teenager who left Chattanooga after a brilliant prep career at Howard. She's 26 now, a University of Missouri graduate, the holder of nearly a dozen collegiate sprint records and a mother.
She also has learned to use poetry and painting — artistic outlets she pursued after high school — as ways to not only express herself but uplift those she shares her talents with.
The maturity and perspective that comes with motherhood — she vows she is running for her 2-year old daughter as well as her hometown — has given her a single-minded focus as she works toward qualifying for the Olympic trials for a second time.
"I've always felt like my legs would take me far, and now I'm anxious to see just how far they can take me," Jackson said. "I believe 99% of getting where I want to be is about the mindset. God gave me the skill to run fast, and that's what has gotten me this far, but what will make the difference is my mindset. That's why I came back home; I needed that positive energy of being surrounded by the people who have always pushed me.
"I went away and got to experience a lot outside of my little world in Chattanooga. I learned to speak up because maybe somebody out there needs to hear that there's been times where life has forced me to my knees, but I always found my way to get back up. What inspires me, what makes me work so hard every day is wanting to do something great so I can help other people here."
Since her freshman year at Howard in 2009, when Jackson burst onto the state scene by sweeping the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the Spring Fling, as well as anchoring come-from-behind championships in the 4x100 and 4x200 relays, Jackson has been in the fast lane to superstardom.
She created a buzz in the stands throughout her career, setting state records in the 100 and 200 as a sophomore, then breaking a national AAU record in the 400 to become the nation's No. 1-rated high school sprinter, having never lost an individual event.
She then set three Mountain West Conference records at San Diego State before transferring to Missouri, where she set six school records and earned All-America second-team honors.
But at the qualifying trials in Eugene, Oregon, for the 2016 Olympics, an injury cost Jackson the chance to earn a spot on the U.S. sprint team for Rio de Janeiro. Devastated, she stepped away from running competitively for two years and gave birth to Imani — which means "faith in oneself" — during that time.
"I still thought about running all the time and missed it so much that I couldn't even watch meets on television," Jackson said. "But it never even entered my mind that I wouldn't be back out there. I believe I had to go through what I did at the trials for a reason, and I've grown from my struggle.
"I knew my career didn't end there, but failing to qualify and feeling like I disappointed people back home has motivated me big time. I don't make excuses. I'm using it and applying what happened then to what I am doing now. I don't have a choice but to make it because I want to be able to give my daughter all the things that I never had."
ANOTHER SIDE OF JACKSON
LaQuisha Jackson has taken up painting and poetry since her high school days as a Howard track star. Here’s one of her poems:
Poor is my language
Rich is too
I lived through both worlds
And see what it can do
You could be born poor and crave the rich tendencies
Or born rich and neglect the poor communities
The birth of our humanity is something we can’t predict
But neither wants to face the reality that they both shake hands with politics
— LaQuisha Jackson
Last year, when Jackson left her job and the life she had made in Missouri to return home, one of her first calls was to Donelle Dunning, her longtime coach and trainer. Dunning, who has worked with numerous Chattanooga-area pro athletes as well as world-class sprinters from Jamaica and the Bahamas, admits that, even in that company, Jackson stands out.
"She's just a different type of athlete, just a rare talent," Dunning said. "You can't even explain some of the gifts that she has, you just have to see it to believe it. She's probably the most gifted athlete to ever come through this whole area.
"She won't have any problem qualifying for the trials, but she also understands that even as gifted as she is, she has to work at it to reach her full potential. She just has to be ready when her time comes, because when it does it will be something that's never happened around here before. But then LaQuisha is used to doing things that have never been done."
One of Jackson's unique gifts is her proven versatility to be competitive in all three sprint events — the 100, 200 and 400 — as well as any relay. With the 2020 Olympics keeping that name but rescheduled for 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and qualifying races not beginning for at least another six months, she explained she could actually attempt to make the U.S. team in multiple events, depending on which ones she feels strongest in at the time.
"One of the great things about being back home is I know there are a lot of eyes on me from my community," Jackson said. "I'm using that pressure to fuel and push me every day to be ready.
"I'm confident something big is going to happen. I can feel it building."