By David Villavicencio
Path to Nationals is a five-part feature series profiling the five student-athletes who will represent the University of Miami track and field program at the 2014 NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Track and Field Championships.
In a span of three years, Lea Johnson made the improbable jump from walk-on to national qualifier.
The junior won the 2014 ACC indoor championship in the women’s weight throw with a huge mark of 20.99m that ranks 12th in the country, second in school history and clinched her spot in the field for the 2014 NCAA Indoor Championships.
A multi-sport athlete in high school, Johnson favored basketball, but she was too small to play in the post in college. The aspiring doctor decided she would leave athletics behind and focus her time in college on her future medical career.
“After high school, I decided I was going to go to school for academics and not sports,” Johnson said. “The summer before not doing sports I realized that I could not stop competing because I have played sports all my life.
“I emailed the basketball, volleyball and track teams here and [Coach Damon Griffiths] was the first person to e-mail me back,” Johnson said. “I took that as a sign and decided to try out for track. When I got here, everyone was really nice and welcoming. After tryouts, Coach Hicks told me I made the team and to work hard.”
An e-mail from one of Miami’s track coaches helped Johnson make the decision to give track a shot in college. But Johnson, who will make her debut at the NCAA national meet Friday at 9 p.m. ET, almost gave up track and field before her career took off.
“My freshman year, I felt really overwhelmed and I doubted if I should continue with track,” Johnson said. “I needed to worry about getting a job and getting ready for life after college. I was about to quit the team and Coach [Cheree] Hicks, who was the throws coach at the time, said she saw a lot of potential in me. She offered me a partial scholarship and convinced me to stick with track. I guess she was right because now I am doing really well, winning the ACC and qualifying for nationals. That would have been a huge mistake freshman year.”
Since her decision to stick with track and field, Johnson has made huge strides as a thrower working with Miami associate head coach Cory Young.
“Lea was here before I got here and even from the first few times in practice, I knew she had this in her,” Young said. “She has a chip on her shoulder, she has that drive and she has the athletic ability.
“Being the smart girl that she is, a 4.0 student and pre-med, she is very capable of being receptive to instruction and understanding the sport. Add in her athletic ability and it helps her tremendously. She comes in every day and wants to work as hard as anybody, if not harder.”
Johnson credits both Coach Hicks and Coach Young for helping her reach her untapped potential.
“I appreciate that Coach Hicks gave me a chance to be on the team and didn’t let me quit,” Johnson said. “But I feel like I have done so well because Coach Young came here and our personalities mesh so well. He does a really good job of changing the training specific to the athlete. He knows when I am struggling in practice if it is a physical thing where I need to take a break and come back the next day or if its something that I can push through and get better from.
“I know I wouldn’t be here without both of them,” Johnson said. “My success is a combination of her pushing me and telling me, ‘you’re not quitting. This is something that you need to do. You need to trust me that you need to be here.’ I needed that at the time and I am grateful for her doing that for me. And I think Coach Young is pushing me to be a better athlete and a better thrower.”
Heading into the 2014 season, Johnson had her sights set on reaching the NCAA Championships in her signature event, the hammer throw. But the junior exceeded her expectations in the weight throw, punching her ticket to nationals.
“At the beginning of the season, the expectation was to do well in ACCs and possibly win ACCs,” Johnson said. “Nationals was something I didn’t think I was going to qualify for, not in weight throw. My goal was to qualify for outdoor nationals in hammer throw. This is like icing on the cake.”
Miami director of track and field/cross county Amy Deem has seen Johnson progress from her first day as a Hurricane. The veteran track coach has expected Johnson’s big progression and thinks she can get even better.
“Lea’s big mark has been coming,” Deem said. “We knew that was there. Early on she wasn’t throwing the way she wanted, but she stayed with it and trusted Coach Young. He’s been confident all along and it was just a matter of getting that one throw. The best part is there’s still room for improvement. The confidence she gained at ACCs is going to go a long way for her at the national championships.”
Johnson admits to being a bit nervous heading into her first national championships, but she is looking forward to being among the nation’s best track and field athletes.
“I am kind of nervous, but I think it’s going to be an amazing experience,” Johnson said. “That’s what everyone strives for in track and field when you’re in college. Being realistic, for a lot of people college track and field is where it stops. I think it will be amazing to be around so many elite athletes and people who will be really successful in their track careers. I want to watch all the races. In any sport, seeing people who are really good do what they love to do is an awesome experience.”
Amber Monroe, Johnson’s roommate on the road and teammate for the past three years, is also a national qualifier this year. Monroe will look to climb that standings in the shot put, but she will also serve as a calming influence on Johnson as she competes in the biggest meet of her career.
“I was almost screaming more when she qualified than when I did,” Johnson said. “She’s been successful with track throughout her career. She’s been to big meets like Junior Worlds. With her being there, I think she will be able to give me good advice on how to stay calm and not be nervous. We always talk before we compete and that helps. I am really happy she is coming. I think her being there will help me a lot.”
With the help of her coaches and teammates, Johnson has reached new levels of success as a thrower. The ACC champion hopes to continue her success this weekend and add a new title to her list of achievements.
“I just have to get in the mindset of taking it as another meet instead of putting a lot of pressure on myself,” Johnson said. “I set the expectation to do well. I want to score and be an All-American.”
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