Story of the Year: Lindsay High School’s McKaylie Caesar started with a short life expectancy but finished high school with a record-breaking long distance career
Cardinal runner McKaylie Caesar finished her Cardinal career as a two-time Valley champion in cross country, a Central Section champion in the 800 and 1600 meter, and a 10th place finish at the State Championships.
By Patrick Dillon @PDillon_SGN
LINDSAY – Eighteen and a half years ago, a little girl was born in Woodstock, Illinois. It was not the strong start this girl would later be known for as medical conditions threatened her life. Born with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, she had a 50% chance of living. To make matters worse, because her vital organs had settled into her chest cavity, her lung development had been restricted. A single lung had developed a mere 20%. More than half of the gray matter in her brain died. Her parents were told by the doctors, “that if she survives, she will never roll over from her back to her stomach,” meaning, she would never develop past that state.
That little girl, who had to go through so much within the first days of her life was McKaylie Caesar, the best long-distance runner ever to come out of Lindsay High School.
“It is a blessing to have running in my life,” Caesar said.
In those first days of life, her terrified parents, John and Kristy Caesar, looked for any help available. They quickly transferred her to Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois, to undergo an experimental procedure. Due to Caesar’s condition, she was only able to be transferred by ambulance. The loss of her brain’s gray matter function occurred during this transport.
The procedure acted as a bridge to get a steady flow of oxygen to the brain. It was not without risks. The patient must sacrifice the left carotid artery and has a 65% chance that the entire left side of their body will become paralyzed.
Fortunately, the creator of the procedure, Dr. Kevin Shaw, was at the hospital along with two other doctors who were practicing under him.
The procedure was a success, but because of the damage already sustained, it was unlikely Caesar would ever gain full function. Then, at her one-year checkup, it was discovered that all of Caesar’s gray matter had regenerated. John recalls Dr. Shaw saying, “I am not a religious man, but science cannot explain Caesar’s survival and brain regeneration.”
By all accounts it appeared to be a medical miracle. Over time, Caesar’s lungs began to develop even more. Today she has the use of a full lung, and three-quarters of the other.
Caesar’s rise to the pinnacle of Cardinal glory was no less surprising, as the fight instilled in her at such an early age must have become ingrained in her chemical makeup.
Her Cardinal career started as a fill-in for her older sister, Maddie. On Oct. 14, 2016, Caesar competed in the Roughrider Invitational while her sister competed for the Cardinals’ women’s golf team. Caesar took 38th. After that first taste, she was off to the races to see how many she could win.
In cross county, she won the East Sequoia League Championship that year, a title which she never lost in her three years competing in cross country and went on to place fourth at the Division IV Valley Championship. That same year she went on to place 133rd at the CIF State Cross Country Championship. It was an appearance she got used to making. She later won back-to-back Division IV Valley Championship. During her senior year, she had solidified her place as the all-time best Cardinal when she took 10th at the state championship.
Caesar’s first section title came the following spring in 2017 during the Division II Track and Field Championship at Exeter. She competed against a star-studded field in the 800-meter that included her sister. Caesar led the entire race, but on the back stretch of the final lap fell back to the end of the pack. But she was not there long, as on the final turn she took the outside lane and passed every runner to take the win.
“It was really exciting,” Caesar said. “I had a lot more energy in me, so I was able to pass people up and sprint the rest.”
On the track, Caesar was a three-time East Sequoia League Champion in the 800-meter, 1,600-meter, 3,200-meter. In 2018 Caesar defended her 800-meter and added the 1,600-meter Division II titles, and she went on to place third at the Grand Masters, qualifying her for the state championship in track for the first time. In 2019 she ran away with the 1,600- and 3,200- meter in the first ever East Area Qualifier.
In her final state championship appearance, she ran valiantly while fighting a fever to place 23rd.
Likely her crowning achievement came on Feb. 20 when Caesar signed a Division I letter of intent to compete for the Cal State Fullerton Titans in cross country and track and field on a full-ride scholarship. She became the first Cardinal to give Division I intention since lineman Chris Misaalefua in 2014.
Caesar had been pursued by many of the top programs in the state, which made the decision to join the Titans and compete in the Big West Conference more difficult. It ultimately came down to the program’s dedication to success led by head coach John Elders, who made an appearance via video during the signing ceremony, and the education she’ll receive. She is planning on majoring in linguistics in the hopes of becoming a speech pathologist.
“It was definitely the most impressive visit that I went on,” Caesar said. “The coaches gave me a lot of hope in the potential that I have.”