Mikayla Cowling is camera shy, or at least that’s what it seems like at first glance. While standing in front of the lens and lighting equipment on the familiar basketball court at Haas Pavilion, she nervously moves her feet and plays with the basketball in her hands, exhibiting every indication of discomfort. She poses a few times, clearly not used to the fact that this time, the court isn’t a place for her to embarrass flat-footed defenders.
“How do I smile, again?” Mikayla asks.
As she says that, a grin makes its way across her face, a chuckle blasting through her lips. If she knows how to do anything, it’s smile.
That smile is a Mikayla Cowling staple — both on and off the court. It’s a constant symbol of her effervescent personality, one that has morphed her into a strong and influential female presence and role model. But she didn’t get here all on her own.
Mikayla was the last child born to a boisterous family of six, the baby in a group of big personalities. This was a great advantage: The path that her predecessors forged for her was far easier to traverse than it would have been without their help and guidance.
“My mom is the strongest woman I know, and seeing how powerful and strong (my sisters) were in their craft, I saw them and I thought, ‘Wow, I can do whatever I want,’ ” Mikayla says.
The youngest of the family’s four daughters, Mikayla was born in Benicia, California, to parents Larry and Kathy. Her three older sisters — Stephanie, Dominique and Alex — and her father were all college athletes themselves. The family’s aptitude for athletics can be traced back to Larry, who was the first Cal athlete to win the NCAA 110-meter hurdles title. Since then, the family’s sporting history has continued on at a steady pace.
“Everybody is so competitive,” Mikayla says. “I think it’s in our blood, honestly. They are amazing athletes and I can watch the passion that they have, which has been given to me. They’ve showed me how to be my best and how to be an emotional player. I’ve taken a lot of pointers from them.”
Mikayla’s youth was filled with constant trips to her siblings’ sporting events and competitions, always watching her sisters excel at each of their sports. Even tagging along as the younger sister, Mikayla was noticed by nearly everyone. TSA employees at the airport the family frequented came to know her — immediately recognizing the smile and bubbly personality present on every family trip.
As she has grown up, she has matured into an emblem of strength and fortitude. The Cal women’s basketball team is known for hosting numerous children’s events and camps every season — from a yearly School Haas Rock game day to summer skill camps — and Mikayla is always involved in the festivities. She especially takes pride in the fact that she can show young girls just how good they can be.
“How today’s society is, men are seen as more than women,” Mikayla says. “And it’s nice to give girls confidence to be more than what they think they can be.”
Even beyond those events, she is the proverbial shepherd of younger players, perennially the program’s go-to player when showing potential recruits around campus. Mikayla is the smiling face of Cal women’s basketball, the woman expected to woo future stars — and she has an eerily impressive track record of accurately reading each recruit and their potential at Cal.
“She has the ability to assess the kid, talk to the kid and really get a good feel for them,” says Larry, her father. “She’s been really good at assessment. Her record of all the kids that she’s talked to, she’s only been off on one.”
Her leadership role on the team seems to be the opposite of the way that she grew up, now leading instead of being led. While it could have been easy for Mikayla to be overlooked as the youngest in a family of extraordinarily successful individuals, today it’s nearly impossible for anyone not to notice her.
“She does something to people,” says Mikayla’s older sister Alex. “She’s so chill but so kind. People just think, ‘Wow, this person — there’s something about this person.’ ”
Her consistent calm exterior is not necessarily indicative of the inner workings of her mental hardware. From a young age, there was pressure on her to be successful, both on and off the court. Larry and Kathy always worked to make sure that their daughters saw sports as a means to a fruitful life, not necessarily an end completely in itself.
Family dinner conversations were centered on all facets of life, not just the athletic goings-on of the day or week. Mikayla and her sisters were always encouraged to complete homework while traveling to various games and tournaments, a tendency that has stuck with Mikayla in college as well.
“She does something to people. She’s so chill but so kind. People just think, ‘Wow, this person — there’s something about this person.”
While it can be difficult to balance both the rigorous academic demands of UC Berkeley and the physical and mental tasks of playing D-1 basketball, she feels as though her experience as a basketball player has influenced who she is.
“I don’t know how my life would be without it,” Mikayla says. “It’s taught me a lot of things that I don’t think I would understand without basketball.”
For Mikayla, basketball is one of those formative experiences that she looks for in other people. Her knowledge of her own experience will continue to help her understand the experiences of others: It’s a self-reinforcing education.
Mikayla’s ability to foster interpersonal relationships with people of all ages and stages is a feature that has been present with her throughout life. She’s been a consistently calming figure in the lives of those who know her, most notably calming her teammates in tense game situations. Even though a lot of the meaningful things that stand out about her interactions with others are small and subtle, they nonetheless have huge significance.
“Mikayla is probably one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met in my life,” Alex says. “Early on, everyone loved her. Even the most challenging people, the most challenging kids, somehow she could get through to them.”
Her major — sociology — is a perfect extension of her already-formulated personality. Her natural affinity for observing and helping others lends itself to the study of sociology, which focuses on social behavior and societal organization.
“I like people a lot,” Mikayla says. “I like to understand why they do things, where they come from and how that affects their behavior and how they act and internalize things.”
And this has all come through in basketball. Through a combination of her natural ability for human relations and her educational path, she has become a sort of emotional counselor on the team.
There’s no question that she’s one of the Bears’ leaders on the court: As a junior this season, she has racked up the most minutes per game on the team, excelling at her midrange jumper and solidifying herself as the most tenacious defender on the squad. But she seems to take on that role off the court as well.
“I’ve kind of been in this leadership role for the past two years,” Mikayla says. “It’s kind of my job to make sure that everyone is in a good mental state. It’s good to know what people need at different times, and I’m able to be there for them when they need me. I want to be there for my teammates. I want to be that person that they can come to.”
It’s probably the smile — the same one that she said she couldn’t reproduce for a photo but naturally played across her lips anyway. The grin is fixed upon her face whenever she does almost anything, from taking practice jumpers to interacting with her friends and teammates. So far, it’s been the key that unlocks the inner workings of many other people, allowing her to be the team leader, female role model and emotional counselor she is today.
Sophie Goethals is the assistant sports editor. Contact her at email@example.com