Oregon hurdler Alaysha Johnson makes an impact on and off the track
EUGENE, Ore. — Measured linearly, nationally ranked Oregon hurdler Alaysha Johnson is 5-foot-3, but she packs an oversized personality.
"She is not a go-along, get-along type person," UO sprints and hurdles coach Curtis Taylor said.
Johnson, a member of her high school debate team, calls herself "outspoken."
"I like to challenge ideas," she says. "I question things a lot. To me, knowledge is power. I'm not the type of person who would want to do something and not know why I'm doing it."
Once convinced there is a reason and the purpose is right, though, Johnson goes all-in.
That might explain what she was doing last week as one of the participants in a panel discussion between nine UO athletes, eight of them African-American, and seven officers from police departments on or near campus.
The discussion was titled "Race In America." It was sponsored by the school's BEOREGON program that promotes inclusion and diversity. It centered on ways to reduce tensions between minority groups and police officers.
It quickly became clear nobody wants a traffic stop to turn tragic.
The discussion had a halting start, "but when it started rolling, it started rolling," Johnson said.
Johnson did her share of talking.
"She made herself very vulnerable there," said UO hurdler Khadejah Jackson, another of the participants. "She shared her experience with the police, and some other people probably wouldn't do that. She is so open. I like that about her, because good or bad, she is willing to tell the story."
Johnson, who expects to have a master's degree in sociology by the time she exhausts her eligibility, isn't just all talk.
She volunteered for a night ride-along with the Springfield police.
When the officer picked her up in a police cruiser, there was a suspect in the back seat.
"We went straight to the jail and dropped him off, booked him and all that," Johnson said. "I'm like, 'OK, it's happening, and it's happening fast.'"
What she learned on the ride-along, though, is the night's mission was as much about preventing crime as apprehending perpetrators.
"It really opened my eyes to see cops aren't out to get everyone," she said.
If Johnson has her way, it won't be the last time local police and minority students at Oregon come together to, as she says, "bridge the gap between the two communities."
In the meantime, there is a plenty of track and field ahead.
Johnson was an Olympic Trials semifinalist last year in the 100-meter hurdles. The UO sophomore's 60-meter hurdle time indoors this year is 8.09 seconds, tying her for sixth on the NCAA Division I level.
She scored at last year's NCAA Indoor Championships by placing eighth.
Johnson is No. 2 all-time outdoors on Oregon's 100 hurdle race with a time of 12.97, just behind senior teammate Sasha Wallace, who holds the school record of 12.95.
Wallace, the national leader this season in the 60s, and Johnson make the hurdles an impact event for the Ducks on the national level, indoors and outdoors.
They are opposites in most ways. Wallace is a diplomat, Johnson shares her opinions. Wallace is tall, Johnson is short. Wallace has a better start and Johnson is better between the hurdles.
What they have in common is an off-the-charts competitive drive.
"When I think I'm doing good, Sasha will come and beat me," Johnson said. "I can never get content, never get complacent. I'm always pushing to be the best person. But I know Sasha is not going to let that happen. She is not going to give it me. I'm going to have to work for it."
Jackson, who specializes in the 400 hurdles, says she won't forget the pep talk Johnson gave her last year when Johnson apparently thought Jackson was being too deferential.
"She said, 'You need to get the mentality that you need to beat me, and I'm not going to let you beat me,'" Jackson said. "She said, 'So, run.'"
Johnson had to be mentally tough to come back from what amounted to two lost seasons.
After winning the Texas Gatorade Track & Field Girls Athlete of the Year award as a high school junior in 2013, Johnson hit the wall in 2014.
She became fatigued easily. Her performances lagged.
"We chalked it up to having too much on my plate as a senior, and running through all these seasons — indoor, outdoor and summer track," she says.
But things didn't improve at Oregon. In her first indoor race, Johnson couldn't clear the first hurdle.
The UO coaching staff began looking deeper for the problem. Finally, in the spring of 2015, doctors discovered she has hypothyroidism, a thyroid deficiency, which Johnson says is genetic.
But even after determining the cause, it took time to find the right medication and dosage. She lost the year athletically.
Given Johnson's competitiveness, it made for an uncomfortable spring as roommates Raevyn Rogers and Ashlee Moore were finding freshman success.
"I was excited to see the team doing really good things, but it was frustrating, because I wanted to be a part of it," Johnson said.
She made up for lost time last year. Taking into account her youth and relative inexperience, Taylor says Johnson's performance at the Olympic Trials was extraordinary.
Johnson was the third-fastest, non-qualifying semifinalist in the field. Given the state of U.S. women's hurdling, that makes her one of the best in the world.
"She is going to be able to bring that to her repertoire as a collegian, and that's going to help her a lot," Taylor said.
Well, that along with her full-throttle personality.
Johnson might be short. But as her coaches and teammates will tell you, she trails behind her a very long shadow.
This article is written by Ken Goe from The Oregonian and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.