Originally from Canyon Country just north of Los Angeles, Alysia, who runs professionally for NIKE, had an incredibly successful career at UC Berkeley in the middle distances. She improved each year, taking home championships at every level before graduating in 2008. After qualifying for the 2007 IAAF World Track and Field Championships with her win at the USATF Championships, she weathered a foot injury suffered prior to the US Olympic Trials in 2008 that ended up hampering her prep for 2009. Now back at full strength, Alysia took a few moments with FNF to share a bit about her journey to some of track’s biggest stages.
FNF: Tell us about your bronze medal experience in Doha?
AJ: My expectations coming in were to go to USA’s, hopefully win USA’s, and if not that, make the world championship team, and set myself up to potentially medal at world championships. So, I took second at USAs, which meant I made the team, and I was like, “Ok, one thing checked off!”
Prelims were little rough. It was a little mental thing – my focus was a bit off, but luckily, I got through, saw I was in fourth position and just needed to hold it for time. I was glad I was in the second heat so I had an idea of how fast I needed to run. I was able to come back strong going into finals. I put it into my mind the night before that I was going to try and win and if they were going to beat me they were going to have to take it from me.
Ed: Alysia led the field from the gun, surprising many of the older and more experienced runners, allowing only European Champion Mariya Savinova of Russia and British National Record holder Jenny Meadows past for the top two spots.
FNF: Take us back to the beginning. What was a key moment in high school where you began to see yourself as a runner who had the ability to go to the next level?
AJ: Before high school, I thought I wanted to play soccer, but moving into high school, I decided I really wanted to do track. I had a great mentor in Lauren Fleshman [Multi-time NCAA Champion / 2006 USATF 5K Champion, Canyon High class of 1999], who went to my high school. She was enough older than me that I could kind of see the next step before I got there because she was experiencing it ahead of me. I am really thankful that God put her in my life because I was pretty naïve about the sport. Coach DeLong [Dave DeLong, long time Canyon High coach] would bring Lauren in to talk to us, and he would tell us about all of her accomplishments and her process, and that really helped me see how it could go.
He was like a second dad to me, and was really awesome in that way where he could push us further than we though we could push ourselves. I was running in the 4x Mile Relay at the Mt. Sac Relays, and I really didn’t believe I could be a miler. He talked me through it, and put me on the first leg. I had been the type of person to say put me in everything, but now I was doubting, and he got me to believe in myself. I ended up coming around in second to a girl who ran 4:55. I ran 5:05, which as a sophomore I had no idea I could do.
FNF: In college, you made some huge strides to become one of the best in the world by the time you were done. How did that evolution occur?
AJ: Coach DeLong had instilled in me the belief not to doubt just because of what things look like on paper, and to be involved and vocal about what I thought I could do. So in the fall my freshman year, I told Tony [Sandoval, Cal Head Track & Field/ Cross Country Coach], “Hey, don’t go easy on me, let me run with the older girls!” He was kind of surprised that I was ready to mix it up.
In indoor, it didn’t go that great, and when we got to outdoors, I ended up making it to the Pac-10 final, and although my PR was 2:08, I took third and ran 2:05, which brought me back again to the Mt. Sac race and how I needed to believe in myself. So, after that, I was like, “Ok, what is the next step!”
My sophomore year, I started to think about what did I want, what did I really, really want. I believed that I could win NC’s, but I got sick over winter break and totally lost focus, thinking I needed to redshirt indoors because I was out for like 3 weeks. Once again, I think God placed people in my life who believed in my more than I believed in myself. Tony just said, “Hey, let’s build back up and see where it goes, don’t count yourself out yet.” I got second at Mountain Pacifics [Indoor league including many Pac-10 schools] in 2:06, and then when I got to NCAA’s, I got third place, which was pretty exciting since I hadn’t made the meet the year before.
Outdoors, I took third again, but I ran a 2:03, so I figured I was moving in the right direction! I figured I would run in USA Nationals and had all the belief in the world that I could win. I actually took fourth, but it was in a PR of 2:01.
So, all the juices are flowing, I had all this faith: in God, in my training, in the process, and I had gone from 2:08 to 2:01 in a short time!
My junior year, people call that the breakthrough year, but really I think that sophomore year was my breakthrough year mentally and that set me up for junior year. Indoors at the Mountain Pacifics, Rebekah Noble from Oregon was running really well, and I still got second, but really was in the position where I was trying to win, and that mindset set me up to win at Indoor Nationals, and carried me through Pac-10s, NCAAs, and USA’s [she won all three meets]. I was just running with belief and not putting a cap on what God has set out for me. And capitalizing on that, I was able to break 2:00 for the first time.
FNF: What are some goals for you both within and outside of running?
AJ: Well, it is pretty clear that I want to make the Olympic Team, but I want to do it the way that I have been trying to go about things, putting my best foot forward, doing what God has planned for me.
I would also like to build a ministry for elite athletes. As professional athletes, it is hard to travel all the time, you’re never at home, and it is really important that we still feel at home and rooted ad encourage each other along the road.
FNF: What can you tell the average runner about some simple things you have learned about training that still hold true for you even though you are now at an elite level?
AJ: I have learned so much about the importance of stretching after a run! It really has an impact on the rest of your day and how you were set up for the next day’s run. Even as a weekend warrior, it is just so important. I have also learned not to eat too close to the workout. I have had days where I thought the next step would be the defining moment where I lost my meal. Those two things have been major for me.Ed: Look for Alysia Johnson at this year’s USATF Championships, next year’s World Championships and the London Olympics in 2012!