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Alysia Johnson: Defining athlete

Canyon graduate Alysia Johnson’s past, present and future are all the same — bright

Posted: December 29, 2010 10:31 p.m.
Updated: December 30, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Alysia Johnson, seen here as a Canyon runner in 2001, is recognized by many as one of the great athletes in this valley’s history. Alysia Johnson, seen here as a Canyon runner in 2001, is recognized by many as one of the great athletes in this valley’s history.
Alysia Johnson, seen here as a Canyon runner in 2001, is recognized by many as one of the great athletes in this valley’s history.
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A person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.

That’s how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term “athlete.”

In many respects, Alysia Johnson has been the definitive athlete in Santa Clarita Valley history.

“When I think of a great athlete, I think about all-around athletic ability,” Johnson says. “You put anything in front of them, they’re going to not only do it well, but dominate at it.”

Sounds like Johnson, all right.

Forget her primary sport, track and field, for a second. Also forget her primary event, the 800-meter run.

Johnson was a part of Foothill League champions in cross country and soccer during her time at Canyon. She was a scoring runner at the CIF State Cross Country Championships.

Dave DeLong, who coached Johnson in track and cross country, recalls her participation in Canyon’s powder puff girls football game held the spring of her senior year.

“She scored seven touchdowns,” he says. “No one could touch her.”

Few could in the state of California when it came to track and field. Johnson excelled at the sprints, the long-distance races, the jumps and the relays. She probably would have excelled at the rest of the events if she’d tried them.

“A lot of star athletes can be prima donnas,” DeLong says. “They only want to do what they’re best at or comfortable doing. Well, here was a girl where we could go from week to week, change the events she does, and the first thing out of her mouth was, ‘OK.’”

Perhaps that’s what makes Johnson a truly great athlete. Whether it was a test of physical strength, agility or stamina, she could dominate. Whether it was an individual race or a team game, she could dominate. She wasn’t dominant at just one thing.

Unless, of course, that one thing is sports.

“That fire and that drive, you have to have that so you can win races,” she says. “You have to believe you’re the best no matter what, even if that person is ranked ahead of you going into something.”

Johnson has scaled international heights, but her Foothill League track and field career is probably the best summation of her versatility. She won 16 individual league titles, the most any athlete can win in four years.

The crown jewel of Johnson’s skill set is the 800. She was a state finalist all four years of her Canyon career, which culminated in a state championship in 2004. Her time of 2 minutes, 8.97 seconds stood as a Santa Clarita Valley record for five years.

She then won NCAA indoor and outdoor titles in the 800 while at the University of California, Berkeley. Her time of 1:59.29 at the 2007 NCAA outdoor meet was the third-fastest in collegiate history at the time.

Injuries have slowed her post-California career, but she hit her stride again last spring. She was the bronze medalist in the 800 at the 2010 IAAF World Indoor Championships in March, and she won the 2010 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championship in the event last July.

Her outdoor personal best of 1:57.34 is less than a second off the American record, and a little more than four seconds off the world record.

There are much more records and accomplishments that could be rattled off, from high school to college to the professional level.

“It just kind of speaks for itself,” DeLong says.

But if you ask Johnson, it speaks to her coaching.

She says DeLong remains a father figure in her life, as does Tony Sandoval, who coached her at Cal and remains her primary coach to this day.

Johnson recognizes her athletic gifts, but she says they wouldn’t mean as much without the coaches who have nurtured those gifts.

“When you put those two together, that’s when you have a great athlete,” she says.

When Johnson first arrived at Canyon, all DeLong heard from other parents and kids was that she’d refuse to do anything but sprints in high school.

Clearly, they didn’t know her. Johnson not only had the will to excel, she had the will to excel at anything the coaches needed her to do.

Four years and countless achievements later, Johnson had a prep career that few could match. More importantly, she’d made countless friends in the program.

She recently became engaged to one of them — former Canyon football player and track and field athlete Louis Montano.
“Success is nothing if you have no one to share it with,” Johnson says.

Success is also nothing if you don’t enjoy yourself along the way.

“She had that rare ability to flip the switch and work her absolute butt off, and then when it was over, flip the switch again and be this class clown kind of girl again,” DeLong says.

And yet, one thing Johnson won’t do is reflect on her accomplishments for more than a few seconds. She missed the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing with a stress fracture in her foot, and the 2012 games in London are in her sights.

Like the races in which she participates, she’s always moving forward.

“If you think about life in general, it’s not going to end today,” she says. “You have these goals that you set, and I feel like you can’t get there by just sitting there. To achieve something, you have to move. There’s always more to be done.”

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