In the first heptathlon Ben Johnson completed as a walk-on for the Wichita State track and field team, he thinks he scored 4,126 points.
Unless you’re a track and field aficionado, it’s hard to put into perspective that score for the seven-event feat until Johnson’s coach, sitting right next to him, burst into laughter. WSU’s Steve Rainbolt knew Johnson was a beginner, but not even he recalled Johnson being that bad. In case you’re still wondering, a score of 4,126 would probably have most coaches tell that athlete to maybe find a new event.
It’s a story Johnson and Rainbolt can look back at now and laugh, but also think about in awe. Now a redshirt senior, Johnson, a native of Tonganoxie, has matured into one of the top multi-event athletes in the country.
On Friday, in Birmingham, Ala., Johnson will compete in the heptathlon at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. He enters the meet with the ninth-best score this season at 5,705 points, which he used to break the American Athletic Conference meet record in a title-winning performance. It ranks second in WSU history.
“It’s so weird to me, like I don’t feel like I’m one of the guys that are going there to compete,” Johnson said. “I don’t feel like I’m one of the top 16 athletes in the country. I feel like I just get to go to the meet. It’s a weird feeling. I think of the superstar athletes from around the country that will be there and people thinking the same thing about me is a weird feeling.”
In a program that prides itself in pumping out multi stars, Johnson might be Rainbolt’s most impressive project.
Johnson was a football and basketball player growing up in Tonganoxie. He only joined the track team his junior year in order to stay in shape for his two other sports. He won the Kansas Class 4A triple jump title his senior year, but that event isn’t included in the heptathlon or decathlon.
WSU was recruiting Johnson’s girlfriend at the time and when Rainbolt asked her if there was anyone else on her team, she suggested Johnson. That led to Johnson joining the Shockers as a walk-on.
“We knew he was athletic, but his marks weren’t particularly good,” Rainbolt said. “He didn’t have good leg speed. But I know enough about this to know that guys can develop if they’re really into it. The best thing we do here is build an atmosphere, build a culture where guys are working at it and developing athletically.”
Once Johnson was introduced to it, he was hooked. Every passing year, Johnson became more and more serious about track and field. He said he first remembers finally thinking he could be good at it after his redshirt sophomore season.
“Once I caught a vision, I started taking things way more seriously, like my diet and what I put into my body,” Johnson said. “I started thinking about the conference championships and the NCAA meet. ‘Well, what do I have to do to get to that level?’ That’s when I started really taking things seriously.”
Johnson was on the cusp of a breakout season last year, but could never get fully healthy. Rainbolt knew he was poised for a big senior year, but became a little nervous when health issues once again arose and Johnson was going to have to rely on his heptathlon score at the AAC Championships to qualify.
Johnson responded with his best meet to date. Interestingly enough, he only set a personal record in one event (1,000 meters) in his breakthrough meet. He was right around his personal record in four other events.
“It’s not like I had any crazy improvements all at once,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to improve a lot in one event, but it’s easier to improve a little in a lot of events. I think I’ve got more in the tank. I think I can score higher, but stringing it all together is going to be the tricky part.”
Johnson will make his national-meet debut on Friday with the 60-meter dash starting at noon, followed by the long jump, shot put and high jump. The competition will conclude on Saturday with the 60 hurdles, pole vault and 1,000 run. The meet will be stream on ESPN3 and live results will be available on FlashResults.com.
“His story needs to be an encouragement to the younger athletes on our team,” Rainbolt said. “These guys can now look at a Ben Johnson and draw some inspiration from that. It means the world to me to see this guy be validated for all of his hard work and dedication. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Not bad for someone who had to Google what events were in the heptathlon before coming to Wichita State.