STEVENS: Johnson Took a Life's Blow But Finished on Top
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  05/29/2009
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

May 29, 2009

Whitney Lianne Johnson
Honors: 2009 MWC pole vault champion
Year: Senior
Hometown: Mission Viejo, Calif.
Born: April 2, 1986
Parents: Donn & Patty

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

Life sometimes slaps you down, hits you in the gut. That's the way it is. Sometimes the knock-down blow isn`t so bad. Sometimes it's hard and nasty. It's how you rebound from the fall that usually tells the most about a person and an athlete.

Lobo vaulter Whitney Johnson took a slap in the spring of 2006 when she was hauling down a runway holding on to a 14-foot pole while preparing for an NCAA regional. The pole caught on something. The force of the stop and the hard run shimmied down the pole and threw the former gymnast into the air. She came down hard and awkward. A knee buckled badly.

It was a tough blow. The trip to the NCAA meet turned into a trip to the hospital: torn ACL. It was a testing setback for the top woman pole vaulter to ever charge down the runway as a Lobo. You can say that Johnson, the 2009 Mountain West Conference pole vault champion, passed the test.

"It was devastating to me," said the fifth-year senior. "But it also was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It brought me to a place of humility where I found a lot of inner strength.

"I remember my sister tore her ACL about three years before that. I had this 'get-over-it' attitude toward her. When it happened to me, I realized I wasn't there for her like I should have been. I apologized to her. The experience of coming back from that injury changed me for the better."

Yeah, when you tear an ACL there is a huge challenge. When your specialty of choice is charging down a runway, planting a 14-foot hole, and throwing your body into the sky, you had better come back with a whole lot of confidence.

For Johnson, it took a while.

"After about a year, I was never really concerned about the knee anymore," said Johnson. "But pole vaulting is really mental and there has to be a strong sense of self belief. I had no mental game for a while. I had to learn to jump again, learn to trust myself, and believe I could do it."

Johnson's 2007 season became a redshirt year of rehab. She came back to the runway in 2008 and her season's best was a jump of 12 feet, 4.5 inches (12-4.5). It was not the improvement expected from a vaulter who went 12-11.5 as a freshman and 13-1.75 as a sophomore. The question was obvious: Could Johnson come back?

"I felt people were saying, `Oh, she used to be really good, but is she still any good?`" said Johnson. "I decided to come back for my senior year and just go for it. Winning conference proved to myself and other people that I'm not a has-been and they can't rule me out."

Johnson's victory in the MWC Outdoor Championships in Laramie was a stunner. She had never finished higher than fourth at a MWC outdoor. A third-place finish in Laramie would have been a good finish. Johnson set a facility record 12-11.5 in taking the win. It was her best jump in almost three years.

Johnson credits teammate Katie Coronado, a three-time MWC javelin champ, for helping inspire Johnson over the bar.

"I went up there knowing in my mind I could win it," said Johnson. "In pole vaulting, it seems you usually have a good day or a bad day and I knew I could pop a jump. There was some bad weather up there, rain, wind, lightning, but I said, 'Bring on the weather, bring on the girls, I'm ready.'

"I was going to will myself over the bar and then I heard Katie yell, `Sell out, Whitney.' For some reason, when I heard that, it totally lit a fire under me."


"You have to be a little bit crazy to do this. There are times when I'm at the back of a runway thinking to myself, `Why did you ever get into this?'"
Lobo senior vaulter Whitney Johnson

The cheer from Coronado meant for Johnson to put everything she had into that vault -- to sell out mentally and physically to the task and the moment at hand. And that's what Johnson did. "I think it let everyone know that I'm back," she said.

That vault didn't get Johnson to the NCAA Midwest Regional today in Norman, Okla. She already had an NCAA qualifying jump. Just like at the MWC meet, Johnson is not favored in Oklahoma, but she is hoping to pop another vault, finish in the top five and advance to the NCAA finals. But whatever happens, Johnson is content with the way her career will end at UNM.

"I'm back at the NCAA regional and that brings a lot of closure with it," said Johnson. "My career has come full circle. I did well my freshman year and made the NCAA and I'm back here to finish my career.

"You have to be a little bit crazy to do this. There are times when I'm at the back of a runway thinking to myself, `Why did you ever get into this?' You obviously have to want the excitement and have to enjoy the adrenaline rush. I love pole vaulting, but I think it's time in my life to pick up a new hobby. I don't think my body can handle any more aches and pains.

"My injury took a lot out of me but I learned I had the strength to push myself to the point of breaking and I'm back on top."

For Johnson, there probably never was a bottom. Life gave her a challenge. She hurt a knee, but never really dropped to her knees. It's possible her redshirt season of 2007 took her to a height, took her to a place, that she'll never reach on any pole.