As UCLA's Sheena Johnson won her second straight NCAA outdoor 400-meter hurdles title last month with the best time in the world this year, she crossed the finish line, slowed to a walk, grabbed a cup of water and kept moving down the track. No fist pump. Not even a smile.
Only when interviewed by the trackside television reporter about her collegiate-record victory (53.54 seconds) did Johnson, a Gar-Field High graduate, allow herself a bit of a grin.
"At NCAAs, everyone was like 'Yeah, you won. You should be happy.' And I was like, 'I am happy, but I need to make the Olympic team first,' " said Johnson, who said she dreamed of being in the Olympics even before she took up track.
"I think if I make the Olympic team and medal in the Olympics, then I think I'll be satisfied, and I'll be able to say that I reached my goal finally. NCAAs are only one goal, and the [Olympic] trials are another, and the Olympics are the third one. Once I reach all of those, then I imagine I'll be content."
Johnson, 21, is the strong favorite in the 400 hurdles at the Olympic trials, which begin Friday in Sacramento, and she also plans to run the 100-meter hurdles.
Her time in the NCAAs would have won the silver medal at the past two world championships and the bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics.
Those who know Johnson best weren't surprised by her subdued reaction or her immediate focus on a bigger goal.
"Sheena's very reserved," said her mother, Jeanie Smiling. "After her races, she thinks to herself, 'Okay, I won, but what could I have done better? How could I have reduced my time?' She's not looking just to win -- she's looking for perfection. She's a very perfectionist type of person in all that she does. Growing up, with her appearance, every strand of hair had to be in place. If you go into her closet, her clothes are neatly spaced and folded. She's just that type of person."
Johnson's quest for track perfection began formally in ninth grade when, inspired by her mother, who ran track at the University of Georgia, Sheena joined the Gar-Field track team.
From the beginning, it was obvious to Coach Jeff Custer that she was not only physically talented but also mentally tough, with huge ambition.
"The first hurdle she ever went over in practice, she hit it and went down face-first on the carpet, but she just kind of sat up, shook her head, stood up and finished going over the next two hurdles. And I was like, 'She's going to be pretty good.' Most freshmen girls would have cried," said Custer.
"In four years of high school, she probably missed three days of practice. She just had that extra drive -- she wanted to be good. When she was a 14-year-old freshman, they had an article in the school paper on her as an 'Athlete to Watch.' They asked her about her long-term goals, and she said, 'I'd like to be a high school state champion and someday make the Olympic team.' I thought that was pretty cool, that someone so young would be thinking like that."
Johnson's talent, ambition and hard work resulted in a stellar high school career. At Gar-Field, she won 15 state championships individually or in relays, four high school national championships (two in hurdles and two in the triple jump), two U.S. junior national championships in the 400-meter hurdles (adding a third in her freshmen year at UCLA) and four team state titles.
But Johnson's first two years at UCLA were difficult.
She experienced her first real failure on the track as a freshman, when she didn't make the finals at the NCAAs despite entering the meet as the top seed. Unhappy that coaches wouldn't let her triple jump and that she saw relatively little of famed UCLA hurdles coach Bob Kersee, Johnson thought about transferring.
But at the end of her sophomore year, she finished fourth in the NCAAs in the 400 hurdles and was named all-American. Kersee, a volunteer assistant who lives in St. Louis, let it be known he would regularly attend practices during Johnson's final two years. Johnson stayed.
During her four years at UCLA, while working toward a post-track career in computer programming, she won six Pacific-10 hurdles titles and was a 14-time all-American. At the NCAAs last month, in addition to defending her title in the 400-meter hurdles, Johnson placed third in the 100-meter hurdles, ran legs on the Bruins' 4x100- and 4x400-meter relay teams and scored a meet-high 19.25 points to lead UCLA to its first women's outdoor team title since 1983. She was named the 2004 U.S. Track Coaches Association female athlete of the year.
She now has a strong relationship with Kersee, who has guided athletes to more than 25 Olympic and world titles and is the husband of three-time Olympic champion heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Johnson has relocated to the St. Louis area to train with Kersee full time this summer.
"I think it took a year and half for the two of us to settle our difference and get on the same page," said Kersee, who is known for being extremely demanding. "But she finally realized that the student can't be the teacher and the teacher can't be the student. Once we worked that out over the first 18 months, the last two and a half years have been great. It would have been great to have the collegiate points from her and some decent performances in the triple jump, but I just thought it might jeopardize her ability to perform in the hurdles. And currently, with her sitting at the top of the world in the 400 hurdles and being in the top five in the U.S. in the 100 hurdles, I believe the sacrifice was worth it."
Kersee pointed to Johnson's failure at NCAAs on the track as a freshman as a pivotal moment in her career. He said he realized then that he needed to work on getting Johnson mentally ready for big competitions.
"Sometimes [failure] is a blessing in disguise. That first failure that we had was nobody's fault but our own, and that experience is something she has been able to take with her when she has new experiences. She just needs to remember, 'If I run the same race that got me here, then I'll continue to move forward wherever I am, whether it's Sacramento or Athens.' "
For now, Kersee only wants to talk about Sacramento.
"I believe that she can make the Olympic team and has the ability to break the world record" of 52.34, said Kersee. But "I want her focus on making the Olympic team first."
However, if Johnson does manage to break that world record, she still may not be perfectly content.
"I always said that if I got the world record in the 400 hurdles that I would go back to [triple] jumping," said Johnson, "so we'll see what happens."