A different view in the long run

Reflecting on her standout track and cross country career in high school, Bryn Mawr's Christy Johnson gains perspective after two life-changing trips.

May 24, 2006|By EDWARD LEE | EDWARD LEE,SUN REPORTER

As Christy Johnson prepares to close one chapter of her life, she can finally take inventory of the past.

It has been a whirlwind year for Johnson, a senior at Bryn Mawr. Eight months ago, the 18-year-old won what she called the "biggest race of my life" when she defeated a talented field that included cross country runners from Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia in the elite division of the Bull Run Invitational at Hereford High School.

Ten days ago, Johnson capped a track and field season during which she set two records and won two more gold medals at the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland championships. She's also the only female metro-area athlete to complete the 1,600 meters in less than five minutes and the 3,200 in less than 11 minutes.

And in about three months, Johnson, who scored 2,240 out of 2,400 on the SAT and has earned straight A's throughout high school, will begin her freshman year at Princeton University, where she is considering a major in chemistry or English.

Johnson has taken time to enjoy the ride after embarking on a pair of overseas trips last summer that gave her a first-person tutorial on perspective.

From being unable to run a couple of miles through a Venezuelan neighborhood due to political instability to witnessing the destructive effects of HIV on families in Nigeria, Johnson has learned to put everything in its proper place.

"Both really put things in perspective," Johnson said of her experiences. "They will give you a worldwide view on what's important."

Johnson's trip to the Nigerian city of Jos last summer was her second with a former neighbor, Dr. William Blattner of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, and his family.

There, Johnson worked at a clinic treating patients with HIV, an epidemic that has affected 25.8 million people who live in sub-Saharan Africa - a 73 percent increase from 1995, according to an article published in the May 15 edition of Newsweek.

Yet, Johnson, who steeled herself to the images of death broadcast worldwide on television, found optimism and hope.

"There were so many elements that were so tragic. But then you talk to people, and they shout, `Thank you, God, for giving me this,' and they praised Him," Johnson recalled, the admiration still lingering in her voice. " ... You talk to these women who have lost their husbands, their families and have been exiled from society, but they're so alive and happy. They have such a richer source of life than I have ever seen."

In Caracas, Venezuela, Johnson taught English at a local school and lived with a family whom she and her family had befriended when they were living in Boulder, Colo., during Johnson's freshman and sophomore years in high school.

But during her stay, Johnson was not allowed to run through the streets. She instead was forced to train on a tiny perimeter inside a local gym.

"The political situation was so unstable," Johnson said of a country that had the third-highest murder rate in South America, according to the Pan American Health Organization. "So it definitely gives you an appreciation for the freedoms that we have here."

When Johnson returned to her family's home in Towson, her mother noticed a change in her behavior.

"At first, she was a little downcast, which I chalked up to the traveling and jetlag," said Joyce Johnson, who accompanied her daughter to Nigeria last summer. "But she saw people who were alive one day and dead the next. She saw children that were orphans. She saw a lot of sad things."

But within a week, Joyce Johnson said her daughter was her usual self around her family, which includes her father, Mark, and younger brother, Danny.

"I think it just put things in perspective," Christy Johnson said. "Every race is one race. It's not that big of a deal. But by the same token, this is what I have in front of me. I need to do it well."

Johnson apparently took that mantra to heart this past school year with her victories at the Bull Run and IAAM championships in cross country this past fall when she was named the Baltimore City Runner of the Year.

After taking the indoor track and field season off, Johnson returned with the same gusto and ran times of 5 minutes, 6 seconds in the 1,600 and 11:06 in the 3,200 during a season-opening league meet against Mercy.

Convinced that she could break the five-minute mark in the 1,600, Johnson turned in a time of 4:59.86 at the MRW Northern Virginia Invitational on April 1. She did it again two weeks later at the Freddie Hendricks Track Festival at Mervo, where she ran a leg of the Mawrtians' distance medley relay in 4:54.

"She's a hardhead," said Bryn Mawr coach Paul Vece, a former cross country and track and field athlete at Archbishop Curley and Loyola College. "She gets her mind set on something, and there's no wavering from it. Once she turns that corner believing in herself that she can do it, that's it. It's over."

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