Alysia Johnson: Loud & Clear
July 16, 2007
BERKELEY - For someone who relishes the individuality of track and field, Alysia Johnson failed just when the spotlight shined brightest.
This past March, Johnson became the first University of California woman in 17 years to win an NCAA indoor championship when she crossed the line ahead of the field in the 800-meter race. The achievement, perhaps the most significant of her promising career at the time, left her completely speechless.
'My brain just stopped functioning,' Johnson recalled. 'I had so many emotions, I couldn't put it into a single word. It was an awesome feeling.'
Johnson's performances, though, speak more than loudly enough to compensate for her lack of words, so much so that as of late May, she ranked No. 1 in the United States and No. 5 in the world in her specialty event.
For more than 20 years, the school record in the women's 800 meters - Louise Romo's 2:01.59 established in 1984 - had not been approached. No Golden Bear had come within two and a half seconds of the standard, a virtual eternity in track and field terms.
Then, Johnson enrolled at Cal in the fall of 2004 from Canyon Country, Calif., and soon, the mark was in jeopardy. A high school state champion in the 800, Johnson's PR entering college was 2:08.97, but that figure wouldn't last long.
As a freshman, Johnson chopped more than three seconds off her time, running 2:05.59 in her semifinal heat at the NCAA championships. She went on to earn All- America honors with a sixth-place finish, crossing the line in 2:06.88 in the final.
In 2006, Johnson again posted her best mark at the NCAA meet, this time clocking 2:03.04 en route to a bronze medal. Later that summer, she came within striking distance of Romo's record when she finished the two-lap race in 2:01.80 at the USA Outdoor Championships, taking fourth in the event as the top collegian.
That result led Johnson to fantasize about the possibility of competing in even more prestigious races in her future.
'In my senior year of high school, my best time was only 2:08,' Johnson said. 'I felt like I had a lot more gas in the tank. I just needed to be pushed. It was going to take experience for me to do what I wanted to do. Obviously, the Olympics have always been in my mind. After last year, it got me to start thinking about it. It is a dream that is possible.'
As successful as her 2006 season was, Johnson's junior campaign in 2007 has proven to be even more special, further solidifying her ambitions. At the NCAA indoor meet in Fayetteville, Ark., she beat a strong field to finish in 2:03.47, setting a school indoor record and outrunning the reigning outdoor champion, Rebekah Noble of Oregon, down the stretch.
The win gave the Bear program its first indoor title since 1990 when Sheila Hudson captured both the long jump and triple jump.
Johnson continued her remarkable run up the Cal best-times chart in the spring when she finally passed Romo's time at the California Collegiate Challenge April 28 at Edwards Stadium. Breaking the tape in 2:01.48, Johnson essentially ran untested, as she finished more than five seconds ahead of her nearest pursuer.
Johnson also left the field in her dust at the Pac-10 championships in May, finishing in 2:01.74, again more than five seconds faster than the runner-up from Stanford.
Then at the NCAA outdoor championships in early June in Sacramento, Johnson improved her mark by more than two full seconds, claiming the national 800 title in 1:59.29 - the third-fastest time in collegiate history. Her event coach, Tony Sandoval, doesn't want to speculate how much more Johnson can lower the standard.
'I try not to put times on people because I think when you start to do that, then you also make it a barrier,' said Sandoval, who is in his 25th season with the Bears and includes Romo among his distinguished pupils at Cal. 'When you get splits along the way, of the three things that can happen, two of them are bad. If you go too fast, you think, `I've gone too fast, I'm going to die.' If you go too slow, you think, `I've got to pick it up.' Very rarely do you run a split that you want.'
'It was going to take experience for me to do what I wanted to do. Obviously, the Olympics have always been in my mind. After last year, it got me to start thinking about it. It is a dream that is possible.'
Instead, Sandoval prefers to make the distinction between a runner and a racer. A runner, according to Sandoval, ignores the rest of the field and battles against the clock. A racer, on the other hand, assesses the competition in each contest and runs to win.
'In the heat of battle, they end up running a spectacular time,' Sandoval said. 'I think that most coaches would prefer to have a racer rather than a runner. Alysia is an unbelievable racer.'
Johnson, perhaps, developed that trait as a youngster back in Canyon Country. When she was just five, she would watch an older cousin run track, and as the family grew up, more and more of her brothers and cousins joined the sport.
Wanting to be included in the group, Johnson soon joined in. Despite being both the youngest and the only girl, more often than not, she was the fastest on the track.
And it wasn't as if the competition was lacking. One cousin, Dayne Comrie, grew up to run hurdles at UC Irvine; her older brother, Eric, recently completed his senior year as a 400-meter specialist at Cal Poly Pomona; and her younger cousin, K.J. Comrie, is a sprinter at Hart High School.
An admittedly 'super-competitive person,' Johnson began to concentrate on the 800 in high school, and by her senior year, she was voted the Santa Clarita Valley Athlete of the Year.
With an important college decision looming, Johnson turned to another Canyon Country star, Lauren Fleshman, who was a multi-time NCAA champion at Stanford from 1999-2003 and is now the top-ranked 5000-meter runner in the United States.
'She helped with applying to college and letting me know what I should look for,' Johnson said. 'She has been a really good mentor, in that I can call her and let her know where I am at. She is good with pointers ... what to look out for. She has been pushing me in the direction of where I can achieve the goals I want to reach.'
Her first choice was to attend Cal and join its up-and-coming distance program.
'I'm an individual who likes to be different and start new things,' Johnson said. 'I really like how Tony deals with his athletes. He is very fatherly, but also likes to get down to business.'
Johnson, who runs each race with an artificial flower in her hair - a tradition she began in high school - further promotes her individuality in her choice of major: theater and performance studies. Although she has yet to fully participate in a production due to her track and field commitments, she did get the opportunity to work on the Berkeley Dance Project.
'I am an outspoken person,' Johnson said. 'I like to entertain, and I think that field works for me.'
Just don't expect Johnson to articulate her feelings the next time she wins a big race. The end result will speak loudly enough.