OSU runner Sinclaire Johnson went from last to first, from watcher to winner in only a year
Sinclaire Johnson was there for the finals of the 1,500 meters at last year’s NCAA track and field championships.
Not on the track.
In the stands.
She won the event at regionals but then, finished last in her heat at nationals. That relegated the Oklahoma State runner to spectator for the finals.
“Coming in dead last," she said, "was just heartbreaking.”
A week ago, she more than made up for last year’s disappointment.
Johnson not only won the national title at 1,500 meters but also set the meet record. Her time of 4:05.98 was the second-fastest time ever run by a collegian and the fastest time ever run in an all-collegiate race.
But that’s not all -- Johnson beat out the defending national champ, Oregon’s Jessica Hull, who hadn’t lost a race on the track in more than a year.
Even several days after the race, the whole thing still seemed a bit surreal to Johnson.
“To be considered one of the best 1,500-meter runners in history … ,” she said, laughing, “it sounds so funny, honestly – ‘That’s me. Wait … what?’”
So, how did she go from spectator to champ?
From last to first?
It started with the disappointment of last year’s NCAAs.
Johnson has long dealt with allergies, and she knew Eugene, Oregon, home of NCAAs, could be rough in early June. She started taking over-the-counter meds. But when the Cowgirls got to Eugene, she realized it wasn’t enough to combat the cottonwood.
Even though the team’s first workout was light, “I just felt really bad,” she said. “I felt fatigued. Every run from there on out was very, very hard.”
Her face became visibly swollen.
Three days after the team arrived, Johnson had her 1,500 heat, and after the first lap, she knew she was in trouble. The pace wasn’t fast, and yet, she felt she was going all out. Once the runners at the front started to push the pace, she fell all the way to the back.
She was disappointed, of course, but she was also motivated.
“That moment just kind of propelled me into this new mindset.” she said. “It gave me some motivation to come back even better the next year.”
Johnson didn’t change her workouts but rather took them to another level.
When she was a freshman at OSU, she failed to complete a tempo run (3½-miles non-stop at a consistent pace) during training for more than six months. Once she finished one of the runs at a steady tempo, it took her nearly 22 minutes.
This spring as a junior, she consistently and comfortably did the same tempo runs in 19:30 or less.
That shocked Johnson.
Ditto for the things OSU coach Dave Smith was telling her. He regularly compares workout times of current runners with those of historically great Cowgirls. Numerous times this year, Smith told Johnson she had done a workout faster than anyone in the program ever.
Johnson knew the great heights achieved by Cowgirls who ran similar times – and she wondered what she might be able to do.
She found out a week ago.
Still, beating Hull in the 1,500 was no certainty. The Oregon legend has numerous national titles, and going into nationals, she hadn't lost a track race since last season.
Johnson wasn’t scared of Hull -- "At the end of the day," Johnson said, "I don't think anybody is unbeatable" -- but she had to scheme for Hull. The plan was to lock her eyes on Hull’s back and follow her.
“She moved right, I loved right,” Johnson said. “She made a move, I answered it. I was just going to stay right on her.”
Coming down the backstretch of the final lap, Hull led but Johnson was right behind. They separated from the rest of the field when they hit the turn, then when they turned for home, Johnson moved beside Hull.
Johnson knew to be patient because of Hull’s great finishing speed.
“When I pass her,” she told Smith before the race, “that’s going to be the only time I pass her.”
Johnson knew Hull might well pass her again before the finish, but when Johnson made her move with about 50 meters to go, Hull didn’t go with her.
Track watchers have called it one of the great duels in collegiate history.
Both had personal bests and came in under the world-championship standard. That makes them eligible to go to the U.S. Championships and try to make the world team.
For Johnson’s part, such things will have to wait. She put everything she had into this past year, into making up for last year's disappointment, and she wants to let her body rest this summer. She’ll start training for cross country before the summer is out, but for a couple weeks, she’s going to decompress.
“I’m going to eat whatever I want, stay up late, have fun and just kind of enjoy myself,” she said.
“I’m looking forward to it.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.