By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Sydney McLaughlin, the current senior hurdler for Union Catholic High School, became a household name and one of the darlings of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil when she earned her way there as a high school junior. Most every sports fan in the world now knows McLaughlin’s name, or at least has an idea of who she is.
Joshonda Johnson, a senior hurdler and sprinter at Absegami High School, doesn’t enjoy nearly the kind of notoriety McLaughlin does, but that might begin to change this spring — if it hasn’t already started.
Johnson, who moved to the Galloway area from Philadelphia when she was in sixth grade, didn’t even start competing in track and field until eighth grade.
“Eighth grade year was my first year, and I started off running the 4×100 and 100 meters. My mom ran track and my dad played football. I’ve always been running, racing kids at recess and stuff like that. People kept telling me I should do sports, but I didn’t know anything about sports, coming from Philly. One of my teachers got me into the track program, so that’s how I started. I didn’t know anything about track. I actually started as a thrower before they starting trying me in running events,” she said. “Freshman year, I started doing the 400 hurdles. I just couldn’t get the 100 hurdles. Then, last year, I started doing the 100 hurdles and 55-meter hurdles more. My coaches worked with me a lot more.”
“JoJo, for me, she’s been so supportive. She pushes me to go through workouts. She tells me to just keep pushing, that I’ll get better. That’s what I’ll miss when we all split up and go to college. It’s going to be hard because I’m not going to have somebody like her around. She can do anything. You put her in the 400, she’ll win it; hurdles, long jump,” said fellow senior and relay teammate Kayla Miller. “She started off in track running in Converse sneakers. She had no idea what she was doing, and we were all like, ‘who is this girl beating everybody?’
“There’s more to her than just track, too. Off the track she’s amazing. I’m thankful that I got to be her teammate.”
Johnson was pretty good as a hurdler and sprinter her first two years of high school, but really burst onto the scene as a junior last spring after a solid indoor season. She won the Atlantic County and Cape-Atlantic League championships in both the 100- and 400-meter hurdles while also scoring top-three finishes in the long jump at both events. She kept her hot streak going into sectionals, winning a South Jersey Group 3 title in the 400 meters while also placing second in both hurdle events. At the Group 3 meet, Johnson took second in the 400 hurdles and eighth in the 400, and at the Meet of Champions she finished fourth in the state in the 400 and seventh in the 400 hurdles. The winner of both of those events? Yup, McLaughlin.
“I watch Sydney McLaughlin and she’s unbelievable. She’s so talented,” Johnson said. “I watch her workouts, everything she does. She’s somebody from New Jersey, so you can’t help but look up to her as an athlete.”
What makes Johnson so unique is her versatility. She actually began her track career as a thrower before coaches guided her into the sprinting and hurdling events. The long jump is perhaps her sixth-best event behind the two hurdles, the 400 and the relays, and still she’s a threat to win county and league titles in that event.
“I’ve only been coaching JoJo for three years, but she’s probably one of the more extraordinary athletes I’ve seen come through Absegami. The last two years, you’ve probably seen the best track and field come out of Absegami that you’ve ever seen. To run a 1:01 as a junior is a pretty amazing feat, and I’m hoping she can repeat that. That’s what we’ve been working for. The entire goal is to get her ready for what she’s going to do at Rider when she goes there, because they are looking at her for mainly hurdles,” said coach Dan Ingrum, himself a former track athlete at Absegami who graduated in 2008. “The girls were all very raw as sophomores, but you could tell she was a standout athlete. She’s also a 17-foot long jumper. She’s probably one of the most versatile athletes I’ve ever seen. A basic strategy of ours is that whatever event you put her in, she’s going to score. It’s always nice to see this kind of talent in South Jersey, and it’s always the kids you don’t expect.”
As many personal accolades Johnson has gotten during the past year, the reason she loves track so much is her teammates, particularly the other girls in the sprint relay events. Johnson, Miller, Tatiana Beaufils and Cyann Moyer all are seniors, and all plan to run track in college. They’ve been running the 4×100- and 4×400-meter relays together throughout their high school careers, and are the defending county and league champion in both events.
“My teammates bring me the most joy from track. My teammates and my coaches have been very supportive. They make it a fun time for me,” Johnson said. “What I’m going to miss the most about high school track is my coaches and teammates. They’ve helped me through setbacks I’ve had with injuries, boosted my spirits and helped my mental toughness. They’ve taught me that there’s more to it than just winning.”
“JoJo, she’s more than a student and more than an athlete — she’s a beyond beautiful person to me. She’s my track sister and has done so much for us outside the track, and on the track, for us. Without her, I don’t think we would be where we are right now,” said Moyer, herself one of the top hurdlers in South Jersey. “I hurdled before her, and when she came in she pushed me beyond what I thought I could do. She made me aggressive and run harder. It was a beautiful thing. It’s so great to have somebody who is on the same level as you, and even past your level.”
Ironically, Johnson said she wasn’t a very good hurdler when she started out four years ago. When she would run the 100 hurdles, she said it would look like a tornado came through and knocked all the hurdles down.
“After I started running the 400 my freshman year, my coaches wanted to start me on the 400 hurdles. Initially, I had a time they could work with, so I started doing the 400 hurdles. With the 100 hurdles, I would knock all of them over. With the 400, I was stuttering (with my steps) a lot,” Johnson said. “I took a break from the 100 freshman and sophomore years. Last year was my first time trying it again, and once I did it my coaches were like, ‘you just three-stepped.’ And I was like, ‘I did?’ It didn’t come naturally to me, but by doing the 400 hurdles so much I started getting the hang of the steps.”
A couple of indoor seasons filled with specialized training, along with running cross country, has Johnson in the best shape of her career, and that’s a scary thought.
“Winter is always tough because coming from cross country and converting from distance back to sprinting is hard, so I get a little insecure in the winter, comparing myself to where the other sprinters and hurdlers are. So, I kind of treat it as a preseason for spring. I felt a lot more confident (last year) going into Penn Relays and stuff like that. I felt like I was at a good point,” she said. “I’d definitely like to try to win a state championship. My biggest concern right now is going into Penn Relays and running the 400 hurdles there. There’s going to be a lot of tough competition there. I’ve had a couple different coaches, and they all give different perspectives about training, and that’s helped me a lot.”
She said she watches a lot of YouTube clips to try to perfect her form, and even gets odd stares from family members when she walks around her house mimicking her hurdling technique.
“Last year, I would be walking around the house working on my form and I would come out on the track on my own and work on things. My family thought I was nuts, but I knew I had to get better,” Johnson said.
Coach Ingrum said he believes Johnson is still just scratching the surface when it comes to how good she can be as a track athlete.
“When she got signed to Rider University, I looked at her and said she could still be so much better. Last year, at states, I watched her 400 hurdles race and thought she can still greatly improve. That’s the scary fact, because I think she went 1:02,” he said. “There are areas she needs to work on, and she’s aware of that. We spend time every meet talking about that. It’s a learning experience for me, coming from my background of dealing with jumpers. With an athlete of her caliber, it’s definitely a whole other playing field when you’re looking at trying to win state championships.
“Sometimes I feel like she doesn’t understand how good she is. She’s a very humble, very nice person. She’s very well spoken and mature for her age and has a very level head. She’s one of the sweetest girls to talk to.”
Johnson said she’s just focusing on the next meet, and taking each one as it comes. She knows her high school career is quickly coming to an end, and that there will be a lot of pressure for her to perform well at the big meets considering she is a senior. That said, she wants to test herself against the best, because that’s what brings out the best in any track athlete.
“My first two years running the 400 hurdles, I would never think about the people running next to me. I would just focus on my race. I never really looked to see what place I was in, I was just worried about my time. But, as I’ve gotten stronger, I’ve focused more on taking on the best competition,” Johnson said. “I try not to think about the pressure. When I step up to the line, I try to think, ‘just run.’ That’s been my motto since my freshman year. So that’s what I’ve stuck to. I always say that when I’m on the line.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN