PV grad Johnson breaks Air Force track records

Division I college senior recently broke two long-standing sprinting records

Jake Newby
Farmington Daily Times

mike has edited; waiting for more art

FARMINGTON — With nearly his entire senior track and field season still in front of him, 2013 Piedra Vista High School graduate Zach Johnson has already made history at the Air Force Academy. 

U.S. Air Force Academy track team member and Piedra Vista graduate Zach Johnson poses for a portrait on Friday at Hutchison Stadium in Farmington.

During the Air Force Holiday Open on Dec. 9., the first meet of the season for the Mountain West Conference college in Colorado Springs, Johnson won the indoor 60-meter dash with a time of 6.73 seconds, breaking the school's nine-year record by 0.01 seconds. His time also cut 0.05 seconds off of an Air Force senior class record that stood for 28 years. 

Simply trying to start the season off on a strong note, the Farmington native said he didn't expect to achieve such an accolade.

"I was really just trying to get a mark. It wasn't trying to do anything special," Johnson said. "Just trying to set up a good year. I was driving home literally the next day for the holiday break. I was just trying to lay that race down and get out of there." 

Though he said the 300-meter dash is rare at a lot of the college meets he's taken part in, the sprinter competed in the indoor event at the Holiday Open and broke a two-year-old academy record by taking second out of 35 runners with a time of 34.37.

By winning high school state titles in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, as well as being part of PV's championship 4x100-meter relay team as a senior, it was apparent years ago that Johnson was on his way to becoming a solid college sprinter.

But it wasn't until after he graduated from PV and ran in Albuquerque's annual Great Southwest Track and Field Classic that PV track coach Mark Turner, as well as Johnson himself, were convinced that he could be a force at the next level.

Johnson ran the 100-meter dash in a time of 10.49, which Turner said was nearly two-tenths of a second faster than his state-championship winning time. Finishing ahead of him with a Great Southwest record time of 9.99 was Trayvon Bromell, who went on to run in the Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro last summer.

"He's the truth," Johnson said, of Bromell. "Being in that company kind of gives you the sense that, 'I belong here. I can do big things.'"

But it wasn't just a straight line of success for Johnson as he transitioned from PV to Air Force. Before he established himself as one of the top-10 indoor 60-meter dash participants in all of Division I, he had to experience his share of ebbs and flows at Air Force. 

Turner recalled seeing a photo of Johnson, caked in mud, on Facebook during his outdoor survival course as a freshman.

"That's the least happy I've ever seen that child," Turner said. "I got a feeling Zach wasn't really an outdoor camper-kind of guy. But he stuck it out. He persevered."

Johnson said he knew his freshman year would be a major adjustment, but he also knew the growing pains would be worth it.

"There's a lot to take in at first," he said. "I really liked the coach, the educational and leadership experiences up there (at Air Force), so it's worked out perfectly as far as the training and the coaches and stuff like that."

Ralph Lindeman is the Falcons' track and field head coach, but third-year sprints and hurdles coach Beau Houston works with Johnson more closely. Johnson said the relationship he had with Houston was strained in the beginning. 

"Coach (Allen) Johnson left, and I didn't really know how the new coach was going to do, and at first, we kind of clashed a little bit, 'cause she was so different," Johnson said. "But once we bought in, it really paid off." 

It's hard to deny the impact Houston has had on the Falcons. In the past year alone, the men's 60-meter, 100-meter, 200-meter, 4x100-meter relay and the indoor 300- and 500-meter dash school records have all been broken on her watch. Johnson said those fallen records are a testament to her.

"She was hard to get used to; her training regimen, her style and her demeanor were way different than what I was used to," Johnson said. "But it's paid off, for sure."

Houston recalled Johnson being "apprehensive of her methods" when she joined the staff at Air Force three seasons ago. But since then, they have found a mutual respect. Now, Houston considers Johnson the training leader of the short sprinters.

"He does everything the right way," Houston said. "He's great at communicating and asking questions and making sure that he understands what the expectations and the standards are so he can communicate that to the other athletes."

Houston watched Johnson break the 60-meter record from just beside the track. She said Johnson's physical preparation in the weight room and his mental focus made it so that she knew he was going to have a great race from the second he took off. But there's one trait in particular of Johnson's that she admires most.

"Zach is brilliant. He is a really, really smart young man," Houston said. "Not only is he a worker, someone who can execute a job he's been assigned to, he's able to think through and understand why certain things happen. 'Why is my body in this position?' Why are we doing these exercises as opposed to other exercises?' So that is probably my favorite thing about him. He's a thinker, and he's not afraid of trying new tasks in regard to his performance, and it pays."

Turner, who Johnson said has always put student athletes first at PV, said he couldn't be prouder of Johnson. The PV alum has truly transformed from a boy to a man during his time at the academy, Turner said.

"In the few times I've talked to him when he's come back and visited (Farmington), I've noticed he's bought into the whole idea of being an athlete and a scholar at the highest level," Turner said. "The man is in exceptional shape, he's getting his degree in economics, he's just eating up the whole college thing. He's something special." 

Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.