Tommy Johnson goes.
That’s the best way Charlie Jellison, Johnson’s teammate on North Thurston High School’s cross country team, could describe it. Johnson can steadily hang with the front pack in a race.
Then, near the end, he turns on the afterburners.
“Tommy is that kid that will not quit,” Jellison said. “He has such a winning mentality, even if he’s behind. I’ve seen him outkick kids that were almost 100 yards in front of him. This kid goes.”
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And goes, and goes.
On Saturday in Pasco, Johnson, a senior, will compete at the Class 3A WIAA cross country state championships for the fourth consecutive year.
He’s steadily climbed in the standings each season (he finished 99th as a freshman, 47th as a sophomore and 29th as a junior), and enters the weekend as the No. 14 runner in 3A, with a personal-best time of 16 minutes, 2.1 seconds.
“I think running is the most mental sport, because you’re only going up against yourself,” Johnson said. “You have to have that mindset that, even though it’s super painful and you think you’re going to be sick, you have to have that mindset that you’re not going to give up.
“That mindset that you’re even going to push yourself harder — especially at the end.”
That sense of discipline is a mentality Johnson has developed over time.
His father, David, was a colonel in the Army. His mother, Rosaylnn, was a captain. Tommy — who has the Air Force Academy and West Point at the top of his list for college, whether he decides to continue running or not — credits his upbringing for his drive.
“I think that helps,” David Johnson said. “I know Tommy is very goal-oriented. I know he’s got very high aspirations, and he knows, if he wants to achieve those goals, he’s got to work at it.”
Tommy Johnson was born in Texas. He lived in Colorado, Germany and Pennsylvania as a military dependent before moving to Washington.
And he wasn’t a competitive runner in any of those places. He is, first and foremost, a soccer player — he was voted a 3A Narrows League second-team forward last season.
In Johnson’s freshman year, when his mother asked him if he wanted to turn out for cross country, the idea didn’t appeal to him. It was Jellison who ultimately convinced him.
Johnson’s first workout was hills — and his legs were sore, he admits — but he qualified for the state meet as a freshman, finishing with a season-best 17:28.7.
“I just decided to keep with it because I still had my teammates there from my first year,” Johnson said. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”
During the past three years, he’s shaved off well over a minute from his first state appearance.
He’s been one of North Thurston’s few state qualifiers since — and the only runner to appear all four years.
“Having Tommy there to model hard work, and what it takes to succeed at a high level, and provide that elite perspective, has been great,” first-year coach Steve Coker said.
Johnson’s personal best — the 16:02.1 — came at the Fort Steilacoom Invitational in September, and he’s remained in the 16-minute range since. He has the area’s fastest time behind Northwest Christian’s Luke Schilter (15:05.5).
“He’s been strong for us all year,” Coker said. “We’re expecting good things for him at state. He’s ready to go. He’s experienced. He knows what he needs to do.”