As the university career of distance runner extraordinaire Rhiannon Johns begins to wind down, things continue to look up for the 22-year-old from Sault Ste. Marie, who is in her final year at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
She qualified last weekend at the NCAA East Regional meet in Greensboro, N.C., for the NCAA finals in the 10-kilometre run. The top 12 finishers at the regional meet for Division 1 schools qualify for the national championships June 5-8, in Eugene, Ore.
“The 10k is my favourite event, the one that I’m better at. Coming off that (last) weekend, there’s a sense of relief having that meet over with because the ultimate goal has always been to make it to nationals,” she said Tuesday via phone from Birmingham. “Just getting there is a struggle in itself because you have to be top-10 in the region.”
Johns posted a time of 33 minutes, 36.72 seconds to finish seventh at regionals and earn her ticket to nationals.
She is in her last year of NCAA eligibility at UAB, where she is working on her masters in mathematics.
Although the NCAA championships will be her final meet at the U.S. collegiate level, it is not the first time she has been to nationals. Two years ago she qualified for the all-American tournament in the 5k, but didn’t fare too well at the 2011 meet, she said.
The goal this season has been to qualify for nationals in the 10k, she said.
There is something bittersweet about her most recent accomplishment.
Collegiate competition and the culture that comes with it have been “so important to me for the past five years,” she said.
As the sun begins to set on her career she admits, “It’s quite sad.”
“There’s a huge sense of sadness that it’s coming to the end. Being part of this team and watching this team grow from what it was when I was a freshman to what it is now, we’re sending six people to the nationals. That was something that wouldn’t even have been heard of when I came in,” Johns said.
But the good news is her time in the 10k in March at the Stanford University Invitational meet in California qualified her to represent Canada at the World University Games in Russia in July. Johns set a new UAB record and a personal best at Stanford with a time of 33:29.99.
Competing in Russia will be the first time she has laced on cleats with a Canadian national team.
“It’s something you always think about in the back of your mind, how awesome it would be to represent Canada at an athletic event. Having this come at the same time that my collegiate career is coming to an end, it’s a cliché, but it’s a dream come true, really, to be able to run for Canada,” she said.
Another first for Johns will come next month when she competes at the Canadian Track and Field Championships in Muncton, N.B., June 20-23. She has never suited up at the national championships before.
“I’m looking forward to the next stage of running,” she said.
Johns will remain at UBA next year where she’ll work to complete graduate studies, but things will not be the same.
“I won’t be able to compete anymore, but I’ll be around,” she joked.
She plans to continue training with the school team as much as possible, however, she admits her goals will be different.
“I’m looking to transition into marathoning pretty soon, after the summer,” she said.
Johns is one of three finalists for the 2013 H.P. Broughton Trophy, which is awarded annually to the city’s sportsperson of the year.
Visually impaired skier Mac Marcoux and Brad Jacobs curling rink are the other finalists.
The trophy will be handed out June 11 at a special banquet.
“The nomination is a huge honour and I’m greatly humbled by that,” Johns said. “But just to have the hometown support whenever I do come home is something I cherish because I have been gone for quite a long time.”
Johns was home at Christmas and intends to make it back to the Sault for a few weeks this summer.