Sheena Johnson of the US in the women's 400m Hurdles (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Sheena Johnson – bold aims, fast progression

While Fani Halkia’s 52.77 Olympic record and subsequent win in Athens signalled the major breakthrough - and biggest surprise - in the women’s 400 metre hurdles in 2004, young American Sheena Johnson, the year’s second fastest performer, was certainly another.

A high school dream comes true

With her 52.95 clocking to win July’s U.S. Olympic Trials, Johnson capped a phenomenal collegiate career by becoming the 11th fastest ever full-lap hurdler. More significantly, then still just 21 years of age, the former UCLA standout was by far the youngest to crack the event’s 53-second barrier.

“The race felt as though it was the same as the others,” Johnson said, recalling her Trials victory in Sacramento. Out to an early lead, Johnson found herself trailing half way through the final bend, which gave her the only boost she would need. “When I saw the girls in front of me, it just made me go faster. I definitely felt ready.”

Her 52.95 was the fastest in the world at the time, and led six of the top seven finishers to personal bests. In the process, she shattered the previous collegiate record of 53.87, Kim Batten’s Trials record of 52.97, one which had stood since 1991 and with it Sandra Glover’s 53.33 Olympic Trials record from 2000 as well. Among Americans, only World Championship medallists Batten (52.61), Tonja Buford-Bailey (52.62) and Sandra Farmer-Patrick (52.79) have run faster.

"The plan was to go out fast in the first 200, then at the eighth hurdle it was all out,” she said after the race. “I dreamed of making the team ever since high school. To actually do it is really special.”

Outstanding junior

Her performances at Stafford, Virginia’s Garfield High School made it abundantly clear that an Olympic appearance was only a matter of time. While primarily a hurdler – she was named the top indoor high school athlete of the year in 1999 and 2000 by Track & Field News – Johnson was also a standout jumper, leaping to state titles in both the long and triple jumps in 2000 to go along with her wins in the 100 and 300m Hurdles. In all, she claimed 15 individual state titles indoors and out and won a pair of national junior championships in the 400 hurdles before heading to UCLA where her impact was nearly immediate.

A finalist in the 100 hurdles at the NCAA championships – she finished fourth – Johnson added a third national junior 400m Hurdles title while improving to 13.52 and 56.02 during her freshman year in 2001, lowered her PBs to 13.36 and 55.71 the following year before winning her first collegiate outdoor title in the long race in 2003, clocking a personal best 54.24. She improved significantly in the short race as well, improving to 13.09 while finishing eighth in the NCAA final.

A change of strategy

Yet her junior year provided little warning as to what she would accomplish during her breakout Olympic campaign.

Less than four weeks after a near PB 54.32 from the heats of mid-May’s Pac-10 Championships, she blasted through the 54-second barrier with a 53.54 clocking to win her second NCAA title, thrusting her firmly into the mix for an Olympic spot. Last year, only three women ran faster.

To focus firmly on her Athens bid, Johnson didn’t compete at all until the mid-July Olympic Trials. “I was just training mainly and working on changing my race pattern a little bit so I could come home off the tenth hurdle a little faster.” With her come from behind win, the strategy worked.

In Athens, she cruised through her heat and semi, but assigned lane eight for the final, a chance at a podium finish proved to be an uphill battle. She clocked 53.83 to finish fourth, somewhat lost in the riotous setting of Olympic stadium after Halkia’s gold medal finish.

“I was a little disappointed finishing fourth,” she admitted. “But I think I ran a good race. At the start, the commands were different, and out in lane eight I had a hard time hearing. I just tried to block everything out. I had a really slow reaction, so I definitely lost something there,” she added with a laugh, noting that her reaction was the slowest in the field. “But when I looked at the tape of the race, I didn’t really see any mistakes. The lane wasn’t a good draw, so I couldn’t really see anyone. But it was a great experience and great incentive to do even better next time.”

The sprint or full lap question

Despite her sudden rise in the one lap event, Johnson has improved notably in the sprint hurdles race as well, finishing third both indoors and outdoors at the NCAA championships, the latter with a personal best 12.75.  And her sub-53 notwithstanding, she refuses to favour one event over the other, and said she intends to continue contesting both. But competing in both requires two entirely different training sessions for two largely different events, every day.

“I have to do two separate practices,” she explains with a laugh bordering on resignation, “the short hurdles in the morning and the long hurdles in the afternoon, or vice versa. If my 100m hurdle times drop, maybe I’ll be alternating the two events in meets.”

With a high profile training group that includes Olympic champion Joanna Hayes, silver medallist Alyson Felix, and accomplished hurdlers Michelle Perry and Brianna Glenn, Johnson may well receive the assistance she needs to continue to improve in the shorter race as well.  Her coach Bobby Kersee may have something to add as well.

“He’s tough at practice,” she says of the famed coach, “but he makes it fun too.”

Bold aims

Her goals for the upcoming season are already spelled out as well. She hopes to reach 12.5 in the 100 hurdles, and over the full-lap, she said, clearly and concisely: “My goal is the world record.” Yuliya Pechonkina’s 52.34 might seem out of reach, but armed with 1.47 and 1.29-second improvements in the last two seasons, Johnson doesn’t seem to mind announcing such bold intentions.

Johnson plans an abbreviated indoor season, possibly beginning at the end of January at the Reebok Boston Indoor Games, before finishing up her degree in Cognitive Science in March. Then, she said, she’ll put her further studies on hold, at least temporarily.

“I’m going to take a break,” she said, again laughing, but said that she does plan on eventually pursuing a masters’ degree.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF