Upset with what she perceived as a lack of communication between her and the UCLA coaching staff, Johnson was on the verge of transferring to another university for the 2002-03 school year. However, after talks with her mother and a strong end to the season, the former Gar-Field High School star decided to come back to Westwood, Calif. for another year.
“I really seriously considered [transferring] throughout April,” said Johnson, who was fourth in the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA Championships May 29 to June 1. “I told myself to wait till the end of the season to make a decision. At first, my mom agreed. She said if that’s that what you’re feeling, then maybe it’s a good idea. Then later, she said ‘maybe you should wait it out and see how it goes.'”
UCLA head coach Jeanette Bolden, who led the Bruins to runner-up finishes in the 2002 NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships, could tell something was up before Johnson even walked into her office. Bolden felt in some ways that Johnson was going through the motions in practice during the outdoor season.
“I started noticing that she didn’t seem right,” Bolden said. “I asked her, ‘Do you want to transfer?’ and she said ‘I don’t know’. I said let me know because if you are not happy, then you really shouldn’t be here.”
Johnson’s unhappiness with her situation began around her desire to triple jump and how the Bruins coaching staff handled her wishes.
Bolden knew what kind of talent that Johnson possessed, especially in the hurdle events. The Stafford resident was a 15-time state champion in hurdle, jump and sprint events and she never lost a 300-meter hurdles race in four years with Gar-Field.
In her freshman season at UCLA, she won the Pacific-10 Conference title in the 400-meter hurdles and was a member of the Bruins’ championship 1,600-meter relay squad.
However, her love of jumping was never quenched. After concentrating mainly on hurdles and relays her freshman year, Johnson began to triple jump and long jump more often during her sophomore indoor season.
That’s when the situation became sticky.
Johnson said she began to see less time in the triple jump and long jump during practice. But Bolden still put her in the long jump in the Arizona California Challenge on April 6.
Johnson finished seventh but soon after, she began suffering shin splints, a problem that prevented her from jumping the rest of the season. The injury got so bad that she was on anti-inflammatory medicine between the Pac-10 meet and the NCAA Championships.
Johnson said she was told by the coaching staff that she would be jumping more than she was and believed that participating in the Challenge meet without adequate practice took its toll physically.
“She [Bolden] didn’t want to make it seem like I got hurt because I wasn’t practicing,” Johnson said.
Bolden contends that Johnson was hurt the whole time and that keeping her away from jumping was the best thing for her at the time.
“It’s got nothing to do with her potential, but she won’t see that sometimes,” Bolden said. “…If you have shin splints, then how are you going to jump?”
Looking back, Johnson said if there was better communication between her and the coaching staff, then there probably wouldn’t have been a problem.
“The whole philosophy [of the coaching staff] made it seem like after my freshman year, I was going to get to jump and then I didn’t get to jump or do short hurdles as much,” Johnson said. “If we weren’t going to work on this and I would have known that at the beginning of the season, I would have expected it. But I didn’t find out till late.”
Bolden said her coaching philosophy was always in place and that her goals for Johnson were different each season.
“Last year [freshman year], it was getting to hurdle and getting more comfortable with the event,” Bolden said. “This year we worked on her speed and we tried to keep her healthy so she could jump. Just like this year, her goals will be different next year. Now the goal is to try to combine that strength in the first year and combine that with the second year.”
Off the track, Johnson is very happy, one reason she decided that transferring wasn’t right for her.
“The school I’m at is really good,” said Johnson, who is interested in majoring in cognitive science and is on target to graduate in four years. “I like L.A. and I like living there. All those things combined really changed my mind.”
And she considers any riff between her and the coaching staff to be over as long as they’re on the same page from day one of her junior year.
“I think as far this year goes, hopefully things will be communicated a little better so we both understand what is going on and it won’t be like last year was,” Johnson said.