Tireless Work Ethic Key to Johnson's Success
In the middle of last week’s six-kilometer National Collegiate Athletic Association Regional Championship race, head cross country coach Ray Appenheimer shouted out to Joanna Johnson, “Eighteenth!” This was not a congratulatory call or one of surprise at her current standing. The call was an urgent signal to Johnson that she must increase the pace if she wanted any chance of reaching Nationals.
Johnson knew she had to place in the top 15 runners. Bit by bit she started to catch up, picking off one runner at a time.
“For the last 2K I was in eighth place. I was nervous because I did not want to lose my spot. I had to really stay focused,” said Johnson.
The first-year star runner crossed the finish line in ninth place, all but assuring qualification for the NCAA National Cross Country meet. Johnson cruised during regionals, setting a new personal record by running under six minute miles over the entire race.
“It was the fastest race I’ve ever run. I really wanted to make it so I did everything that I could,” she said.
It was an amazing finish for what has been an unbelievable year for Johnson. Only three weeks ago she led the Yeowomen to a second-place finish by capturing the individual conference title.
Her achievements in her first collegiate season are just the tip of the iceberg, especially since she began running only four years ago.
Growing up, Johnson was ambivalent about athletics. She did not play teeball or recreational soccer like most kids, but waited until junior high before she put on her first jersey. The Chico, CA native played field hockey, soccer, volleyball and basketball before she decided that sports might not be for her.
“I was not really into the competition and did not want to be involved with the team drama,” said Johnson.
Her feelings changed when she entered high school and realized she wanted to be part of an after-school program. In her sophomore year, she started running cross country. Having never run competitively before, she struggled early on.
“Everyone passed me. It was so hard. I did not really enjoy it because I was so terrible,” said Johnson.
Rather than quit and move on, Johnson was determined to stick with it. Not only did she feel she could improve, she felt there was a reward just from practice.
“I’d come home from practice and be like, ‘Wow, I just ran three miles.’ I knew I could do better if I worked at it,” she said.
Johnson took cross country seriously and trained hard in the off-season entering her junior year. By the end of the season, she was the fifth best runner on the team. Another year of intense training and improvement saw Johnson move up to the second runner.
During her senior year, she decided to postpone her freshman year at Oberlin to study in Belgium because she wanted to learn French and experience a new culture. She was following in the footsteps of her father, as well as her brother, Graham, who journeyed abroad to Norway.
Johnson’s choice to come to Oberlin was encouraged by her brother, who is a senior at the College. Although the school was initially not on her list, its reputation for academics, relaxed atmosphere and conversations with Coach Appenheimer helped bring her to Ohio.
“I liked what Ray had to say. He knew running does not need to be our life and there is a balance between academics and running. He would push us but also allow us to do other things,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s year in Belgium did not affect her running. Rather, not running competitively at the college level motivated her. She sought out community races, winning her age group in 20km Brussels race.
“I ran every day after school. The entire time I knew I would be running here so I wanted to be in shape,” said Johnson.
When Johnson came to Oberlin for preseason in August, she had no idea what to expect. She explained she was content to just make the top seven Oberlin runners. In her first race Johnson surprised herself, placing second on the team.
“Ray told me to just stay with Nicky [Ouellet] and Marie [Barnett]. Maddy [Davis-Hayes] was first on the team, but he said on the last mile to go, if you can pick it up then go for it,” explained Johnson.
As each week went by, Johnson continued to improve, adding another arsenal to the Yeowomen’s talented team. While Johnson was focused on her individual form, she was keen on helping lead the team to the national meet, something it didn’t achieve last year despite winning conference.
The Yeowomen had a strong season but just narrowly took second at conference, losing to Allegheny by one point. The team missed nationals by a similarly narrow margin, coming in 33rd in the rankings. The top 32 teams in the nation make it to the meet. Oberlin finished fifth at regionals, where the top two to three teams usually advance.
Johnson’s achievements have been shadowed by the team’s failure to achieve its season-long goals.
“I am so excited to be going [to nationals] but it is not the same without going as a team. It would have been a lot more fun and exciting. Maybe it will give us more motivation to make it next year after being so close,” she said.
For now, Johnson is focused on the championships race in Minnesota on Saturday. After a relatively easy week in training, she is rested and ready for the big meet. Johnson wants to run her hardest.
“Being there is not enough. I’ve made it this far, I want it to be a good race,” she said.
Johnson’s short jump to cross country stardom is quite an achievement that Johnson acknowledges with humble pride.
“If you told me my freshman year of high school I would have done all of this, I would not have believed you. I can’t imagine not being involved in cross country. It is a big part of my life,” Johnson said.
If Johnson can win conference and make it to nationals in her first year, who knows what the future holds.