Carbondale native and multi-event track and field athlete senior Malaikah Love is known as her team’s in-house comedian.
Love’s ability to make others laugh is just one of the talents that the pentathlete and jumper possesses.
During the Missouri Valley Conference Indoor Championships Feb. 25- 26, Love won the pentathlon, which consists of long jump, shot put, 60-meter hurdles, 800 meter and the high jump. She earned 10 points for the Saluki women who went on to finish fourth of eight conference teams.
Love’s multi-event background began as a youth in the southern Illinois area.
Love said she started to play sports in sixth grade when her friends encouraged her to try out for the volleyball team. Love, who said she’s always been athletic, did not know much about volleyball before the tryouts.
Love said she was not very good when she first started playing volleyball, but her ability to quickly pick up on the game’s nuances helped her make the team then and later transition to the pentathlon, she said.
“I’ve always been able to pick up on stuff,” Love said. “The first time I try it I might be kind of iffy, but the next time I do it you can bet it will be good,” Love said. “I’m the kind of athlete that it doesn’t take that much experience for me to get better.”
Love grew up in foster homes throughout the southern Illinois area after she was taken away from her mother before the first grade.
After a brief return to her mother, Love and her older sister lived in a foster home in Marion from second grade to fifth grade. From sixth to seventh grade, Love lived with a foster family in DuQuoin while she attended school in Carbondale and started to participate in volleyball. Love then lived in foster care in Marion before moving back to Carbondale in eighth grade after she was adopted by her grandmother.
Senior jumper and fellow Carbondale native Nina Okafor, who has known Love since middle school, said she considers Love a sister whom she can talk to about anything. Okafor said Love’s jovial personality makes the difficult days of practice much easier.
“She definitely makes us laugh. Sometimes I come in mad and she’ll make a joke to make me feel better,” Okafor said. “She likes to tell jokes and they’re always funny and always keeps the team smiling and laughing.”
Love said her social skills and ability to easily make new friends made moving easier to adjust to as a child.
“I don’t mind talking to people. I’m a class clown, so it was no problem for me making new friends,” Love said. “You kind of get used to leaving a house, making friendships and relationships with people in the house (as well as) other foster kids, but you have to learn how to break ties real quick and move on.”
Love excelled at track and volleyball during her time at Carbondale High School, where she was at four-time state qualifier and two-time Southern Illinoisan Track Athlete of the Year. Despite her success, Love was not highly recruited and said she did not know much about collegiate athletics while deciding to continue her athletic career.
“I knew I was a good athlete, I knew I was a competitive athlete … for me it never was a question of am I good enough to be among these people,” she said.
Love said she was originally set on leaving the southern Illinois region to continue her athletic career, but she eventually decided to stay. She initially decided to attend Rend Lake College in Ina to play volleyball, but she changed her mind and decided to attend SIU on a track scholarship.
Coach Connie Price-Smith initially recruited Love as a multi-event athlete, but Love worked exclusively with jumping coach Andre Scott during her first year on campus.
“The first year she was here ,she only did the long and triple jump, I had (Bianca Stuart) here who sprinted and jumped, and (Love) told me to train her like (Stuart),” Scott said. “They were kind of teetering if (Love) should go to the sprint coach or me, but she was a better jumper than sprinter, so I got her.”
During her freshman year, Love went on to be an all-MVC performer in the long jump and triple jump. As she went into her sophomore year, Love started to compete in the pentathlon. Despite her unfamiliarity with the pentathlon upon her arrival at SIU, Love said her competitive nature and ability to easily pick up new sports easily allowed her to excel immediately.
“I knew nothing about (the pentathlon), Love said. “I don’t mind being put in all these different kind of events. Its kind of fun, especially when you first start out.”
Love earned NCAA All-American honors in the pentathlon her sophomore and junior year, and even though she enjoys competing in the events, she said she feels an obligation as a student athlete to continually perform at a national level.
Despite the rigors of practice and the toll that continuous jumps into a sand pit can take on her body, Love said she does not consider quitting an option and finds a way to finish her workouts no matter what.
“It’s not even a question of ‘can I sit this one out?’ It’s an obligation; once you start you have to finish,” she said.
Love said she recognizes the privilege she has as a student athlete. However, she said being on scholarship does not disregard the hard work that athletes but into their sports.
“We work. We’re on the track, football field or basketball court.” she said. “It’s a 24-hour process. Its not us being given things. We work for it.”
As Love enters her final outdoor season, she said she will not compete in the pentathlon and will instead focus on jumping. After her athletic career is finished, Love said she would like to become a dental hygienist.
Scott said while the track team tries to get southern Illinois athletes to stay and attend SIU, many choose to leave. Love’s willingness to attend SIU is a positive for the school and the community as a whole, Scott said.
“There’s a bunch of eyes watching her, whether she knows it or not. Her whole high school is watching her. The community itself is watching her,” Scott said. “It’s a blessing on both sides for her to get the proper coaching, but she’s also willing to do all the work to become successful.”