Shana Johnson is perched in the starting blocks, thin gold chain dangling from her neck, manicured fingernails just centimeters behind the starting line. There is an intensity in her eyes as she waits for the starting gun to sound. When it does, her muscular thighs combine with a lean torso and strong arms to propel her from the blocks with grace and power.
Pure and simple, it is the form of a sprinter.
It is not until she is off the track that Johnson looks 12 years old again. The quiet confidence and focus on display in the starting blocks are replaced by an easy smile and bright, telling eyes.
"Yeah, she looks tough on the track and she is, but I run with her all the time and she still can't beat me," teases Freddie Johnson, Shana's father. The comment draws a challenging stare from his only daughter.
"I understand," the father says. "Don't ever tell someone they can beat you . . . but there are some exceptions."
Among her fellow 12-year-olds, exceptions seem to be few. Johnson, who lives in Upper Marlboro, is a three-time Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympic gold medalist and owns an AAU record in the triathlon. A sixth-grader at Patuxent Elementary School who will attend James Madison Middle School next year, a magnet school in Upper Marlboro, Johnson occasionally practices with the Eleanor Roosevelt track team, sometimes beating some of the Raiders' sprinters. ("I don't beat all of them," she says, "but I do beat some of them.")
Eleanor Roosevelt's girls have won eight of the past nine state 4A outdoor track titles. In a case of the rich getting richer, Johnson likely will attend Roosevelt when she is ready for high school.
"Her potential is unlimited," said Armease Starks, who coached Johnson from 1996 to last year before yielding the reins to Henry McCallum of the Glen Arden Track Club. "If you can project at this age, and sometimes I think you can, I would expect her to be in the Olympics if she keeps up a good work ethic."
As for the more immediate future, Johnson has set the National Junior Olympics July 27-Aug. 1 in Omaha as her goal. These games are a major step up from the AAU Junior Olympics Johnson competed in the past two years while under Starks's guidance (the fact that McCallum's Glen Arden club travels to these games was a major reason for the coaching switch). It is a more national event and she'll have to earn her trip at two very competitive qualifying meets held at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County in July.
The first qualifying meet is a local competition involving teams from the Potomac Valley, which includes Maryland, Virginia and Washington. The top five finishers in each event will advance to the regional competition, which includes teams from Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The top three finishers in each event at the regional meet compete at the nationals. McCallum said he knows that getting past the local and regional qualifiers will not be easy, but he anticipates Johnson will, at a minimum, advance in the pentathlon.
Johnson comes from a family of athletes, headed by Freddie, who spent some time in an NFL training camp with the New England Patriots in 1985 before becoming a professional middleweight boxer. Shana's older brother, Freddie Jr., 15, and younger brother William, 11, play football and run track. Freddie Jr. plays both sports at Eleanor Roosevelt; William competed in both last year as a classmate of Shana's at Patuxent Elementary.
The competitions started early for Shana. At first, her parents would go to the track to run laps, leaving Shana and her brothers to race each other in the infield. In 1993, when Shana was 6, her parents entered her in the Advil Mini-Marathon in New York--a 10-kilometer run through Central Park. She completed the race, surprising even her parents and grandparents with her speed and dedication.
She joined the Marlboro Boys and Girls Track Club in 1996, her first year of organized competition, and a year later won two gold, one bronze and one copper medal at the AAU Junior Olympics at North Carolina State, breaking a record in the triathlon in the process. Johnson garnered four more medals at last year's AAU Junior Olympics at Norfolk State University: gold in the pentathlon, silver in the 400-meter run, bronze in the 200 and copper in the 100.
Johnson's strongest events are the 400 and the pentathlon (which includes the high jump, long jump, shot put, 100 hurdles and the 800), although she prefers running the shorter 200. Her best times so far this season definitely are not record-breaking--she has run the 400 in 1 minute 4 seconds, the 200 in 26.5 and the 100 in 13.7--but they are exactly where McCallum wants them.
"We are training her to peak at the right time," McCallum said. "You don't want that to happen too early in the track season. We've got her right on track to peak in the middle of June, just in time for the national Junior Olympics."
On Track to Growth
McCallum's team practices three days a week at Eleanor Roosevelt after school and competes in meets nearly every Saturday from May through August. Most home meets are at Roosevelt; others are at area high schools in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
At 5 feet 4 and 119 pounds, Johnson has a large body frame for girls her age, something Starks and McCallum agree is what makes her such an explosive athlete. She already is bigger and more powerful than some of the Eleanor Roosevelt sprinters.
Her potential, McCallum says, stems from the fact that she has the body type of a sprinter and, perhaps more importantly, the mental makeup.
"You can tell from the development of her body. She has a lot of good habits, and is real easy to coach. Not to mention the talent--that is already there. Shana has unlimited potential," McCallum said. "She's multitalented, that's why she's so good at the pentathlon, but in the long run I think she'll be a true sprinter."
And although Johnson runs with the more than 150 members of the Glen Arden Track Club, Freddie will always be her No. 1 coach--and her No. 1 fan.
"I can hear him yelling from the side the whole time I'm running," says Shana, playfully poking her Dad in the ribs. "It's either 'Get going' or 'Get out' or 'Lift.' It's always something. I'll probably get tired of hearing his mouth as I get older, but I'll still run. I love the competition."
CAPTION: Shana Johnson, with her father, Freddie, is a three-time AAU Junior Olympic gold medalist. She has practiced with E. Roosevelt's track team.