They both attended Canyon High School in Canyon Country (near Magic Mountain) in Southern California and were coached by Dave DeLong. The principal at Canyon just so happens to be Bob Messina, who really got my coaching career started when he allowed me to be the UCLA women’s cross country team manager in 1989. Just last fall both Johnson and Fleshman stopped by their alma mater to visit with one of their high school coaches and the current team.
Johnson and Fleshman both claimed California State championships in track & field while in high school (Johnson: 800 meters, 2:08.97-2004; Fleshman: 3200 meters, 10:18.81-1999).
They both had standout track & field seasons in 2007, earning spots on the USA team for the World Championships in Osaka. Johnson, then only a junior at Cal-Berkeley, captured the 2007 USA Championship in the 800 meters. Fleshman was in her third consecutive year of placing in the top three at the USA Championships.
Thanks to such successful 2007 seasons, both Johnson and Fleshman had to be thinking about making the Olympic team as 2008 began.
Johnson placed third at the NCAA Indoor Championships in March. But, suddenly, Johnson had a sore foot. She was still able to win the Pac-10 and Western Region 800 meter races but had to withdraw from the NCAA 800 meter semi-final due to the pain in her foot.
About one month before the Olympic Trials, Fleshman ran an excellent time of 14:58.48 in the 5000. She seemed primed and peaked for the Olympic Trials. All seemed to be fine at the Trials in the 5000, but a select few in Fleshman’s circle knew that she had rolled her left ankle before the 14:58 race and had subsequently taken two weeks off from running right before the Trials.
Both Johnson and Fleshman had their dreams of running at the 2008 Olympics dashed by broken navicular bones.
At the Olympic Trials, Johnson toed the starting line, but clearly affected by the injury, placed a disappointing ninth in her heat and did not advance to the semi-final, let alone the Olympics. She could barely walk off the track. The injury was later diagnosed as a stress fracture in her navicular bone.
In the women’s 5000 meters at the Olympic Trials, Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan, Jennifer Rhines, and Fleshman comprised the lead pack. When the lead pack surged with three laps to go, Fleshman could not keep pace. She would place a disappointing fourth, missing the last qualifying spot for the Olympics by one place. In October she would undergo surgery on her foot for her broken navicular bone.
Between the 2008 Olympic Trials and this year, it’s been a slow gradual return to the upper echelon of running for both athletes. Johnson did not start racing again until April 2009. She did not run any PR’s, but at least she was able to compete in the 2009 season. It was a step in the right direction. Fleshman battled back after her surgery but ended up not racing on the track in 2009 when she scratched from the 2009 USA Championships at the last minute. She did show progress when she won the X-Terra Half Marathon Trail National Championship race in September 2009.
Johnson and Fleshman’s patience and perseverance have been rewarded. Both have comeback from their injury not just to be able to compete again, but to compete at a high level. They both claimed 2010 USA championships (Johnson in the 800 meters and Fleshman in the 5000 meters).
Johnson’s 2010 season began with a bronze medal at the World Indoor Championships in Doha in March. Then she won the USA Championship in impressive fashion, leading the race from start to finish. At that point her PR for the 800 was still 1:59.29 from the 2007 season. Three amazing PR races have followed. First a 1:58.84 at the Prefontaine Classic on July 3. Then a 1:57.85 to win a relatively low-key meet in Lignano on July 18. Then came the big one. In Monaco on July 22 Johnson won a Diamond League 800 race with a world leading time for 2010, setting her third PR in less than three weeks (after going without a PR for three years). Her time of 1:57.34 makes her the fifth fastest US woman of all-time!
Fleshman’s 2010 season began in earnest following the trail half marathon win in September 2009. Her next race was a 5K a month later. She didn’t race on the track until a meet in Oregon in April, which she won in 15:42. She
did a tune-up 1500 a month before the USA Championships in 4:12. Then she stepped on the starting line in Des Moines for the 2010 USA Championships. No one knew what to expect. The favorites were Rhines, Molly Huddle, and Jennifer Barringer. Having been away from the track scene for nearly two years, Fleshman was not seen as a race favorite. That may have made what she did all the more special. With five laps to go, Rhines surged and built up a sizeable lead. Fleshman and Huddle ran together and closed the gap on Rhines. With 600 meters to go Fleshman went for the win – attempting to win the USA Championship at 5000 meters like she had four years prior. She ran a 66.9 second last lap to win by two seconds over Huddle and five seconds over Barringer. The comeback was complete. An excited and emotional Lauren Fleshman was national champion.
Johnson and Fleshman should be proud of the accomplishments already achieved in their careers. Their comebacks alone are the stuff of Hollywood movies. Hopefully there is more for the script to come. My lingering question is, will their career paths continue to eerily mirror one another?