Equestrienne, aspiring chef among La Jolla High School grads




Editor’s note: When the La Jolla High School Class of 2010 graduates on June 21, among the outstanding seniors will be an avid horseback rider and an aspiring chef who were selected by school officials to be featured by the Light.


Mackenzie Merkel’s mom always wanted to ride horses as a child, but she never got the chance. So when the La Jolla High School senior expressed an interest in horseback riding at age 9, she had her family’s support and encouragement.

“I’ve benefited a lot from my mom’s interest in riding,” Mackenzie said. Nearly a decade after her introduction to the sport, the graduating senior has her own horse, a half-Andalusian mare named Brioso Remante, and participates in numerous shows and competitions, all while maintaining straight As and other extracurricular activities.

She competes in dressage, defined by the U.S. Dressage Federation as a way to develop the horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to work, making him calm, supple and attentive to his rider.

“There’s constant improvement,” Mackenzie said. “Dressage requires a lot of patience, but I’m always improving, always moving forward.” When asked her greatest accomplishment, she hesitates, and insists pinpointing one moment in her riding career is difficult because she hasn’t peaked yet.

“Now I’m doing schooling shows, where judges provide feedback. I like them because I’m constantly working to get better.”

She’s more certain when it comes to her highest achievement overall. Her grades, no question: “I’ve worked really hard.”

That hard work both in the ring and in the classroom has paid off. Mackenzie will attend Dartmouth College in the fall, where she will try out for the varsity horseback riding team.

“I think I’ll make it, but if not, there’s a club team and lots of other riding opportunities.” Selecting a university that provided continued riding opportunities was important to Mackenzie, who only applied to colleges with riding programs.

“It was the deciding factor,” she said.

Mackenzie seems perfectly suited to dressage. Patient and determined, she exudes a sense of optimism — about riding, about Dartmouth, about her future in general. She relishes the challenges of her sport, and looks forward eagerly to the excitement and opportunity that will come with riding at the collegiate level.


Sebastian Becerra prefers to spend his time in the kitchen.

“I’ve always been cooking — and eating,” he added with a smile — “with my family; it’s always been a big part of my life.”

He first considered pursuing a career in the culinary arts after watching his cousin, a top chef in Lima, Peru, at work.

The aspiring chef has already tackled kitchens on multiple continents. Sebastian spent a month in Peru with his cousin, working 12- and 13-hour days.

“It was intense, but I learned a lot,” he said. In March, he participated in a festival there, where in the course of two days, he helped prepare food for more than 12,000 people. The high school senior also worked for five months in the kitchen at Roppongi, a La Jolla restaurant and sushi bar.

This fall, Sebastian, like Mackenzie, will head to the East Coast. He’ll attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. He’s looking forward to the experience, as the school holds special family ties. It’s where his cousin learned to be a chef.

So what is it about cooking that makes Sebastian’s eyes light up?

“I like it because it allows you to have your own style. There are no rules. You can put your personality into it.”

When asked whether he’s decided what type of cuisine he’s most interested in learning to prepare, Sebastian offers a vague, but enthusiastic response. “I’m excited to learn about all kinds of cooking,” he said.

The young chef is much more decisive when it comes to which types of food he likes to eat. “Peruvian and Italian,” he said, without missing a beat.

Like any profession, cooking presents challenges. The hardest thing, said Sebastian, is “working well under pressure. You also have to work at having good communication, which you need to keep a restaurant running smoothly.”

Sebastian has some idea about how he wants his culinary education and career to progress.

“I want to go to Europe after school and cook over there. My cousin says it’s a great learning experience.”