The Grind, presented by The Bank of Clarendon: Lakewood's Janiya Ray driven to lead Gator track to success


When Lakewood's Janiya Ray wakes up in the morning, she only has two things on her mind.

She starts by hitting the books. She put in the work to attack her academics, finishing most of her high school requirements early so she could spend her senior year as a dual-enrolled student at Central Carolina Technical College.

Once the schoolwork is done, Janiya heads to the track. She's already accomplished so much for the Lady Gators. She's the school record holder in the 100m dash and she anchored the 4x100 team as they finished second at the SCHSL 3A state championships last May. Somehow, she's already cutting time off the records she set last season, and she doesn't plan on stopping any time soon.

Head track coach Youshi "Kirk" Kirkland has seen a new version of Janiya this year, and he's loving every minute of it.

"Her mindset is different this year," Kirk said. "Usually, she would just go with the flow with everyone else, but now that she sees the role that she has, the leadership position that she's in now as a captain. Now she sees her leadership position, her ability, she's finally understanding what she can do, and she can do even more."


Janiya had a classic introduction to track. As a middle-schooler at Furman, she was playing basketball when her coach saw the way she flew on the court. She gave it a shot and fell in love.

"Every Friday for track in middle school, we used to always go out and race. I used to be running with the boys, so I guess seeing me run, he pulled me to the side and asked me to run track for them," she said. "I really wasn't looking into track, but he convinced me to come out to run track, and I finally did, and I ended up enjoying it, so I continued to do it."

Once she gave track a shot, Janiya found some inspiration at home. Her mom, Jawanda McKnight, ran track in middle school and was a force to be reckoned with. While Jawanda didn't continue to run in high school, the pair were able to bond over the sport.

"She always told me about her track experiences, and that always pushed me to run as well," Janiya said. "She always told me how she never got beaten and all that, how she always won first. So that makes me wanna follow her footsteps."

Maybe sprinting is just in Janiya's blood.

"She really picked up that strong gene from me because when I was younger and I ran track, I could run really fast," Jawanda said. "It just makes me proud. It just brings back, and I can reminisce about my younger days when I'm watching her run and compete against other people. I'm always telling her to keep her head up, always pray and to go hard."

When COVID-19 hit during Janiya's freshman year, she decided to stay away from the track team. Jawanda was more concerned about Janiya's health than a season on the track.

"I really wanted safety first because COVID was a big scare. I wanted her to be safe first," Jawanda said. "She still continued to run. She would run against her sister; they would race against each other. She always still kept up with running. But COVID was a big scare, so that was last thing I was worried about with her. I wanted her safety first, everybody's safety first."

As the world started to return to normal, Janiya wasn't sure if she wanted to return to the track. Eventually, her parents convinced her it was the right move.

They were right.


After a strong sophomore year, Janiya took a massive leap during her junior year. She established the school record in the 100m dash, crossing the finish line in 12.49 seconds, a time she has since eclipsed, She also needed just 26.60 seconds to finish the 200m dash.

While she was crushing her individual events, the 4x100 was where Janiya really shined.

She teamed up with Cierra McLeod, Ashante Shaw and Lillian Cogdell to form a dominant 4x100 team. Shaw was a newcomer to the group, but once the quartet got a few races under their belts, they knew they had a chance to do something special.

"Once we got her on board, it was probably around the Coaches Classic time (in late March) once we realized that we had a shot at going to state because we were dropping times drastically," Janiya said.

The Lady Gator 4x100 team seemed unstoppable for most of the year. They cruised to a region title before winning the lower state championship with a time of 49.74.

But there were some nerves that came with heading to state. Janiya injured a muscle in her foot during the lower state meet, so she spent the week trying to do whatever she could to improve the strength in her foot before state.

"I went to the trainer like throughout the whole week up into state. I was icing my foot, wrapping it, making sure everything was good with it," Janiya said. "The day state came, it wasn't as bad as it was throughout the week going into state. That was my only race that day, so I didn't really have that much pain on it.

"I just had to put my emotions to the side, put the pain to the side, and I put up for my team."

When Cogdell handed the baton to Janiya for the last leg, the pressure was on.

"It's very scary because it's either you place or you go home, so it's a lot of pressure," she said. "Just got to get out there, work hard, trust your teammates and go out there and do your best."

Janiya and the Lady Gators trimmed nearly .20 seconds off their time, but it wasn't quite enough to take down Seneca. They finished with a time of 49.47 for second place. While Janiya was thrilled about making it closer to the top of the podium, she was driven to take her game to another level this season.

"That just pushed us to want to work harder since we placed second, and we know we are capable of placing first with hard work," she said.


After a great 2023 season, Janiya wasn't going to settle for the status quo. She put in the work.

Janiya had two major focus points as she trained during the offseason.

"I like to work on core and lower legs," Janiya said. "Some people do upper body, but I'm more of a core and lower leg person to get stronger because it starts with the legs and in the core. You have to have that tight core for the last 50 meters of your 200 or so. If you're a 400 runner, that back stretch, that's where it comes in and plays a big part."

Kirk saw a new level of commitment from Janiya during the offseason. The senior doesn't play any other sports, so she was locked in on Lakewood's offseason program from beginning to end.

"She was coming to indoor season workouts; she was coming to weight training. And if she wasn't making it to weight training, she'd always tell us that she went to the Y to go work out in the weight room," Kirk said. "She definitely took it seriously. She definitely took the extra mile over the offseason, and it showed."

Her times say it all. Janiya already improved on her school record in the 100m dash. In just the third meet of the season, she clocked a time of 12.33. She had a little pressure from fellow Region VI-3A runner Leiyana Rose of Camden, who was .01 seconds behind her. That didn't faze Janiya. In fact, she thrives with competition nipping at her heels.

"I actually love running against comp(etition) because that's what pushed me to run even harder," Janiya said. "I'd rather place in a comp meet than a meet that I know I'm gonna place first and there's no comp because that's what makes me better. It just makes me want to push more, knowing that their times are better than me. It just trains me to want to do more in that race so I can come out on top."


Janiya knows the only way she can elevate her game is to focus on the minute details. In her individual events, it means crushing the start because she doesn't have a lot of time to build up to her top speed.

"It definitely starts in the blocks, as well as being able to hold your speed out the blocks," she said. "If you have a good block start and you know how to hold your speed, everything should fall in place for you."

But being the anchor of a relay team is a different beast. When you're starting a 100m dash, everyone has the same starting point. When Janiya is anchoring a relay team, she might be in fourth place before she even grabs a baton. When that happens, Janiya finds a new gear.

"It's a lot of pressure, especially when the team is probably like a little slacking, but you got to make up for it. It's just all about bringing it home," Janiya said. "Just last week we were in a 4x1 race, and I got the baton in fourth, and just seeing that we were in fourth just triggered something in my head, and I caught us all the way back up to first."

While being fast is important in every track event, Kirk doesn't think speed is the defining factor of a great anchor.

"A lot of people think the anchor leg is about the speed, but I don't think it's about the speed. I think it's about the person," the Lakewood head coach said. "Last year, Ashante Shaw was a lot faster than Janiah, but we knew that Janiah had that mentality to want to finish, and this wasn't her first rodeo. She's been in this position before, so she knows what it takes.

"You want an anchor who's strong mentally and physically to finish the race. Some people are there physically, but mentally they're not there. If you're not there mentally, you won't receive the baton, you might take off too fast, or you might drop the baton. The anchor leg is way more than speed."

As Janiya works to improve on the track, she draws inspiration from one of the most invigorating modern track athletes, Sha'Carri Richardson.

"I fell in love with Sha'Carri when she was at LSU," Janiya said. "Just seeing how driven she is and how she never gave up no matter what the circumstances were, especially when she came dead last, and she pushed herself and worked hard. The next year, she came first in that same meet. That just made me love her. She never gave up."


Janiya is heavily focused on her education and track because the two things work together to help her reach her ultimate goals. While she has goals of being an Olympic athlete, Janiya knows track won't last forever.

"I know that track can get me through school, so I try to do the best that I can so I can get me a scholarship," she said. "I focus on my grades because you can get a lot of money for academics as well."

Janiya hopes to become an athletic trainer once her days on the track are over. As tends to be the case with future athletic trainers, there was one specific injury that sparked a passion for the profession.

"My first year at track I had bad shin splints, and I was always with my trainer, so that just grew a bond with me and him and made me want to drive to be an athletic trainer," she said.

The senior is also using her success in the classroom to her advantage. She wants to be able to walk in the door at whichever college she decides to attend with a leg up on her classmates.

"Getting all of my high school stuff out the way first was a good thing to do because I don't really have a lot to focus on my senior year," she said. "Hopefully, if my college classes go well, I'll have a semester finished of college already once I go into college."

Jawanda feels blessed to have a child who has that perspective. Janiya certainly makes life a lot easier for her mother.

"She's a very humble child. She's very respectful. In my eyes, she's like a little perfect child," Jawanda said. "I know no one is perfect, but she's well-mannered, she listens. She makes me proud with her track performances, and she's an outstanding student."

Janiya still has a lot on the horizon. She has goals of being a state champion before leaving Lakewood. Hopefully, she'll find the right college where she can continue her career. Until then, she's going to keep putting in the work.

"Just knowing that it's all going to pay off one day, that just pushes me to be better," Janiya said. "Knowing that I can be better makes me want to be better."