In less than two weeks, Rhiannon Johns will attend the biggest track meet of her life.
Only, she won't be competing in the race she thought she would.
The 20-year-old University of Alabama at Birmingham student placed 12th in the 5,000 metres at the NCAA Division-I 2011 Outdoor Track and Field Championships-East Preliminary on the weekend, grabbing the last qualifying spot for the NCAA Championship which runs June 9-11 in Des Moines Iowa.
"I wasn't even going to declare in the 5,000 metres, but I thought, it's two days later (than the 10,000 metres), so it doesn't hurt to declare in the 5k, it's kind of a bonus," said Johns. "And then I fell in the 10k."
The 10,000 metres is Johns's race. It's the one she won for the second year in a row two weeks ago at her conference meet.
To take a tumble was, "pretty disappointing," to say the least.
"It was about 7k into the race. It was still a giant pack. In the 10k they don't break it up at all, so it's 48 people on the track at once, and I just clipped another runner and went down," said Johns. "Most people didn't even notice that I fell. My coach was taking lap splits and it only made a difference of four seconds in my lap, but in those four seconds, I went from sixth to 28th."
The fall left her, "a little banged up, but nothing major." She managed to finish within a second of the personal best of 34:14.04 she set in March at Stanford University in California.
When it came to Saturday's 5,000 metres, Johns was hardly unprepared. Earlier this year, she set a personal best and a school record when she finished in 16:13.00.
"That was a school record by about 20 seconds, and I broke my personal best in that one by about 30 seconds, so that was kind of a breakthrough race this year," said Johns.
She finished in seventh place in her heat Saturday with a time of 16:27.04, good enough to make the Top 12 cut. It means she'll compete among 24 of the best runners in the United States in Des Moines.
For Johns, who had hoped to qualify for the NCAA Championship in the 10,000-metre last year, the event is going to be huge. In fact, it is going to be the biggest athletic competition of her life, so far.
"At a meet like this where everyone is extremely good, the differences in training and ability are minimal," said Johns. "Anybody can have a good day, and anyone can have a bad day. A lot of it just comes down to who wants to fight for it more."
Johns, a Sir James Dunn graduate, was one of the city's top runners when she competed in the Sault. She was a city cross-country champion in 2006 and won both city and Northern Ontario Secondary Schools Association championships in 2008.
On the track side, she won city titles in the 1,500 and 3,000 metres three straight seasons, setting several records along the way.
As a club runner, she was third in the 3,000 metres at the Ontario Track and Field Association Bantam-Midget-Junior Indoor Championships in 2008.
In her freshman year at UAB, Johns was sixth in the 10,000 metres, 14th in the 5,000 metres at the Conference USA Championships.
Last year, despite coming off a cross-country injury the previous fall, Johns won the 10,000 at her conference championship and just missed going to last year's NCAA Championship.
At this point, Johns said it doesn't make much difference that she will be racing the 5,000 metres instead of the 10,000 metres, like she'd planned. She has one more training session, but otherwise, the intervening time will see her just, "resting up."
"For the distance races like this, it's money in the bank, basically," said Johns. "All the 100-mile weeks that I've been doing since January, they're already done, so it doesn't really make that much of a difference training wise."
As the big meet approaches, Johns said it is probably the one she has been the best prepared for in her career. She said one of her biggest strengths is being able to train hard and not get hurt, which is a big plus in distance running, where long, solid blocks of training pay big dividends.
"I haven't missed a day of training since January, since Christmas, actually," said Johns.
Johns, a mathematics major who continues to hold a 4.0 grade-point-average, just finished her third year at UAB and plans to do two more, in the hope the extra year will help her athletically. She'll compete in cross country in the fall, but probably sit her fourth year out in track.
"I'll get another year to train and just get a lot faster and come back for that fifth year and be really fast, hopefully," she said. "That's the plan."
The Johns File
Name: Rhiannon Johns
Hometown: Sault Ste. Marie
High School: Sir James Dunn
University: University of Alabama at Birmingham
Sport: Distance running
UP Next: NCAA Championships, where she'll compete in the 5,000 metres
Year: In her third season
Major: Mathematics, with a 4.0 grade-point average