Nakiya Johnson is counting the days until she leaves the Southland to attend college and run track for the University of Texas, the defending NCAA women's champion.
"I can't wait," said the senior at Chino Hills Ayala. "Only 3 1/2 months."
Johnson cautions that she is not in a hurry to leave her friends and family behind. But after establishing herself as one of the top girls' 400-meter runners in the world last summer, she's eager to get the next phase of her career out of the starting blocks.
Johnson, 17, clocked 56.8 seconds early in the season last year. She was state runner-up in 53.85 behind Monique Henderson of San Diego Morse, then sprinted into the limelight last summer when she won the 400 at the U.S. Junior championships in 52.76 seconds at Edwardsville, Ill. That victory qualified Johnson for the world junior championships in Annecy, France, where she ran 52.09 and finished second behind Natalia Nazarova of Russia (52.02).
Johnson's performance in France was the apex of a rise that longtime track observers most often describe as meteoric.
* Johnson was an outstanding soccer player who did not begin running track until her sophomore year.
* She did not run the 400 until the start of her junior season.
* She is still learning how to start and finish a race.
"I've never had an athlete who improved so very, very much in such a short period of time," said Ernie Gregoire, who has coached the Southern California Cheetahs track club for 30 years and began working with Johnson last spring. "If she continues to improve, she is going to be one of the top 400-meter runners in the country."
Johnson, as animated off the track as she is focused on it, is the latest speed sensation to come out of the Chino Valley Unified School District. Sprinter/long jumper Angela Williams of Chino High, the Track & Field News girls' athlete of the year in 1997 and '98, is now a freshman at USC.
"I've learned a lot from watching Angie, not only the way she ran and trained but the way she handled expectations and everything," Johnson said. "I'll never forget last summer in Edwardsville. After she won, she said to me, 'OK, now it's your turn.'
"That was a turning point for me."
Johnson's starting point, in terms of track, begins with her father, Reggie, who was a sprinter in college. Reggie never pushed his daughter to the starting line. Instead, he watched her outrun everyone else on the soccer field.
"I knew his background, but track didn't interest me," she said. "Running without a ball in front of me? There was nothing really there."
After her sophomore soccer season, however, father and daughter made a deal.
"I told her, 'Just give me three weeks to train you and two meets. If you don't like it after that, you can forget about it,' " Reggie recalled. "I just wanted to get her out there to see what would happen."
Nakiya was pessimistic. She did not like the nervous feeling she got before running or the short shorts and spikes runners wore.
"I just felt naked without my [soccer] shin guards and long socks," she said. "It just didn't feel right."
But Nakiya concedes that she started feeling a lot better when she won her first race . . . and the next . . . and the one after that.
Johnson ran the 100 and 200 as a sophomore, advancing to the Masters meet in the 200. She began working with Gregoire after the 1998 National Scholastic Indoor meet and went on to win the Southern Section 400 title and finish second behind Henderson in the state final.
Johnson's winning performance in the U.S. Junior championships earned her a ticket to France, where she fully expected, she said, "to get whupped on."
Instead, she almost was disqualified when she showed up for her first heat with the wrong entry number. Tears were the only things running for Johnson when a coach delivered the correct number seconds before the start of her race. Two false starts by other competitors enabled her to regain a sense of composure and she won her heat in 53.1 seconds.
"I cried for 10 minutes straight after that race," she said. "After going through that, I said, 'I don't care who's in my way. I'm winning this thing.' "
Johnson's second-place finish in the final--"I could have won if I knew how to lean at the finish. I still have a lot to learn."--put her on the international map. It also necessitated some changes in her training routine when she returned to Ayala.
Those who believe track and field is dying probably have never been to an Ayala practice. Bulldog Coach Don Uyeshima has 274 athletes in a program that has dominated almost from the time the school opened in 1991.
Ayala's girls have never lost a Sierra League dual meet, a streak that stands at 34 victories. The boys' team lost to Diamond Bar this season, ending its league winning streak at 25.
Johnson, a team captain at Ayala, works out twice a week under crowded conditions with her high school teammates and twice a week with Gregoire and a group of other elite prep athletes at Mt. San Antonio College.