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The Signal's Female Athlete of the Decade: Alysia Johnson

Posted: December 29, 2009 10:21 p.m.
Updated: December 30, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Canyon High graduate Alysia Johnson is one of the greatest runners in this valley’s rich running history. Canyon High graduate Alysia Johnson is one of the greatest runners in this valley’s rich running history.
Canyon High graduate Alysia Johnson is one of the greatest runners in this valley’s rich running history.
Alysia Johnson wasted no time in making her mark on the SCV sports scene.

As a freshman during the 2001 track and field season, Johnson blistered the 800-meter field at the Southern California Masters Meet with a time of 2 minutes, 10.63 seconds. It shattered her personal record and was one of the fastest 800-meter times recorded by a prep athlete in the country that year.

It was just the beginning.

By the time the Canyon High standout departed for Cal-Berkeley in the fall of 2004, she owned a school track and field record in every event in which she competed: the 100 meters (12.51), the 200 meters (24.80), the 400 meters (54.41), the 800 meters (2:08.97), the long jump (17 feet, 5 inches), the 1,600 meters (5:10.5), the 4x400, 4x800 and 4x1600 relays and the distance and sprint medleys.

Her marks in the 200 and 400 are also Foothill League records. Only her long jump record has fallen at Canyon.

In her specialty, the 800, Johnson won three CIF-Southern Section Division I titles, three Masters Meet (Southern California) gold medals and a California state championship.

She won 16 Foothill League track and field titles, the most any track athlete can win in four years. She also won a pair of Foothill League titles in cross country and a league title in soccer.

So dominant was Johnson that in four years of running varsity, she only lost one Foothill League event — a 100-meter dash just moments after winning the 400.

Canyon track never lost a dual meet while she wore the green and yellow. The 20 points she routinely tallied for the Cowboys (you need 64 to win a meet) were insurmountable.

In a sport that measures athletes by the purest standards of speed, power, endurance and competitive fire, Johnson had no rivals. Even through the lens of history, she remains peerless. She was the SCV’s premier female athlete of the 2000s.

She is also The Signal’s Female Athlete of the Decade.

“No one’s even close in my opinion,” says Canyon track and cross country coach Paul Broneer. “When she was in high school, she just owned the record books. She’s just an incredible athlete.”

Johnson’s star rose early, but it wasn’t a perfect ascent. In successive years, Johnson failed to medal in the 800-meter state finals, despite coming in as the favorite. In her freshman appearance, a runner fell and Johnson stumbled over her and nearly fell herself.

“I lost momentum and was never able to regain my rhythm,” she remembers.

She returned as a sophomore determined to make amends. But it wasn’t meant to be.

“I decided I would stay out in front of the pack,” she says. “But I wasn’t prepared to be tripped from behind.”

Johnson fell at nearly the same spot on the track, and though she rose quickly, she suffered the same fate.

“Two years in a row,” she says. “At the same meet? In the same place? I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But I learned from both races.”

Johnson rebounded to take sixth as a junior.

“There was no way I was going down,” she says. “I was so excited because I made it through. I made it around the track and up to the (medal) podium.”

Johnson put an exclamation point on her track career with a gold medal at the state finals in Sacramento on May 22, 2004 — this time coming from behind. Because of a knee injury she sustained early in the season, Johnson’s times weren’t eye-popping. No one expected her to challenge for the title.

With about 250 meters to go, the doubters seemed right. Johnson was running sixth and about 100 meters behind the leader. And then she found that mystical other gear. She passed one, then another, then another. With 100 meters to go, she was closing in on the lead.

“As far ahead as they were of me, I was still calm,” Johnson says. “I was just thinking, ‘This is going to be fun.’ It really felt like they were coming back to me.”

Johnson raced into first and crossed the finish line several seconds ahead of second. Her time of 2:08.97 was a personal best.
“What Alysia has, John Wooden called it the competitive spirit,” says Broneer. “She’s got that thing you just can’t coach.”

Johnson isn’t so quick to dismiss the influence of coaching on her success. She credits Canyon track and cross country coach Dave DeLong for instilling a belief in herself.

The lesson took place just moments before Johnson was to run the first leg of a mile relay.

“Coach DeLong put me first and I questioned that because I didn’t really run the mile,” Johnson says. “He got so mad that I asked because he had faith in me. He told me not to question what I can do, to just go for it.”

Johnson responded with her best mile time to date (5:05) and Canyon won the race.

“She’s committed and she never complains,” DeLong said of Johnson when she ran for him. “She doesn’t take it easy. That’s a rare commodity – to be that athletically gifted and possess such a great work ethic. I could coach the rest of my life and never see that again. ... She ranks with the best ever at this stage in her career, but she still has a long way to go.”

DeLong’s prediction has proven true.

At Cal, Johnson captured NCAA titles in both the indoor and outdoor 800-meter events as a junior in 2007. Her 1:59.29 time at the NCAA Outdoor Championships set a school record and was the third-fastest in collegiate history.

Johnson became a five-time NCAA All-American, a two-time Pac-10 800-meter champion and was the 2007 and 2008 Pac-10 Women’s Track Athlete of the Year.

By the time she graduated in 2008, Johnson had signed a contract with Nike Sports and was the favorite to represent the United States in the 800 meters at the Olympics in Beijing.

A stress fracture in her foot derailed her Olympic dreams, but after two months in a boot and a long road of rehab, she’s ready for the 2010 World Indoor Championships this March, which take place in Doha, Qatar.

Six seconds is the distance between Johnson’s best time and the world record of 1:53.20. It’s a time Johnson knows well.

“I’ve taken about a second off of my time a year since high school,” she says, doing the math in her head.

The American record is 1:56.70.

“The way I’ve been engineered is to never put a cap on what I can do,” Johnson says.

Win a world title? Set a world record?

“Only God knows,” she says. “With Him I can do anything.”


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