A Tale Of Two Comebacking Hurdlers

Alaysha Johnson (above) and Tia Jones (pictured later) scored big PRs in roaring into the international scene in ’22. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

IF A YEAR AGO you were trying to forecast the future of the 100H in the United States, there are two names you might have easily left out.

A year ago, Alaysha Johnson had a 1-race season, a single flat 100 where she clocked 12.05. The previous year, the former Oregon/Texas Tech star had clocked only 13.44w over hurdles in her sole race. As she puts it, “People would say, ‘Are you still training? I remember you used to be so amazing.’”

A year ago, Tia Jones struggled through just 4 races, grimacing in pain as she tried to rehab what could easily have been a career-ending Achilles rupture. The former Georgia prep sensation (Walton, Marietta) hit times of 13.08/12.95w and says, “Every step of the way it was so painful. I actually had a doctor tell me, ‘You might not want to run again,’ just trying to scare me out of it.”

The outlook for the two hurdlers had at one point been bright. In ’17 Johnson ran a PR of 12.69 and won the Pac-12 title, then placed 4th in the NCAA for Oregon. She ranked No. 9 in the nation.

A year earlier, Jones had run her best of 12.84 as a high school frosh. She captured the World Junior bronze that year and the gold two years later, earning a rare U.S. Ranking as a prep.

But both experienced the depths of despair as they struggled with deciding whether or not to keep trying to hurdle. Amazingly, both emerged in ’22 as major contenders on the world stage, with each of them joining the all-time U.S. Top 10 list (see box) and positioning themselves well to earn their first ever World Rankings.

Johnson, now 26, put together a brilliant season, first placing 2nd at the USATF Indoor and making it to the semis of the undercover Worlds. Outdoors, every one of her races bettered her old PR. She ran her fastest at USATF, clocking 12.35 for 2nd and a ticket to Worlds. She bounced back from a disappointing first-round disaster there to close out her campaign with a gold medal at the NACAC meet in the Bahamas.

In 17 finals the 22-year-old Jones equaled or bettered her old best 15 times, with a string of PRs that culminated in a stunning 12.38 at the Brussels Diamond League. Her 5th at the USATF had left her off the Worlds team, but she ended her campaign on a high note, with a 12.40 for 2nd in the Diamond League Final.

The two, friends and rivals, shared their incredible stories with us:

Johnson: “I Feel Like I Had More To Prove”

A ’15 grad of Spring High School, in a suburb north of Houston, Johnson won Texas state titles in both hurdles as a junior, hitting 13.52w and 41.24. Those feats landed her a scholarship to Oregon, where she won individual All-America honors 4 times and led off the 4×1 that finished 2nd in the ’18 NCAA. Yet all that glitters is not gold, as they say.

She explains: “I left Oregon because my mental health just wasn’t right. I wasn’t having as much confidence and I was feeling myself going deeper and deeper into depression. That’s something that I struggle with and is a very big side effect from the thyroid disease that I was diagnosed with my freshman year.”

She then attended Cal State Northridge for a short time, but got tangled in the transfer process and wasn’t eligible to compete. “It’s just something that fell through the cracks,” she says. “I was dealing with a lot. I have my mom and my immediate family to back me up, but we came up from poverty, so it was a lot of things I had to deal with on my own. I just didn’t want to stress my mom.

“It was stressful, but it made me a strong individual and it made me resilient and I knew what I wanted to do. I knew I had to get somewhere that I could still shine.”

She decided to sign with Texas Tech. “They had opportunities for me,” she says. “They wanted me and I fell in love with the coaching staff. They were everything I needed in order to grow as a person. And I wasn’t running as fast as I was at the University of Oregon, but what was most important was that I was growing as an individual that would be able to navigate society better — not knowing that I needed it then, but knowing that I need it for the journey I’m going on now.”

In her year with the Red Raiders, ’19, Johnson made All-Big 12 indoors and out, hitting 12.92. The next year, on her own as an aspiring pro with no sponsor, she had to navigate a sport crippled by the pandemic.

“It was a feeling of unfinished business,” she explains. “I did regular jobs and people would say, ‘You look like you run track,’ or ‘I know you, you used to run at Oregon.’ I felt like I had so much more to give and I didn’t feel like I ever had an opportunity where I was healthy and 100%. I just felt like I had more to prove. I saw what the girls were doing and I felt like I could be right there doing the same thing. So I got back into it. I never truly stopped. I was training those two years that I wasn’t competing. My whole life was literally still wrapped around track & field.”

She found her way to Kollective in Austin (a “social performance club”), and she began to work with Morgan Wells as her hurdle, strength and conditioning coach, and also strength coach Jordan Bush.

She could feel it all coming back: “Being inspired and finding my passion again, that’s what made me succeed this year. Being around people that really love me and care about me and changing to coaches that really have my back. I was in a place where I was completely confident and I was completely OK with whatever results came out. That’s when I really started to succeed.”

Johnson found herself happy to focus on the process and didn’t immediately realize she had already begun to rocket her way to the sport’s upper reaches. It was not till she ran her first indoor race of the year at Houston, an 8.02 that stands as a superior mark to the 8.01 PR she ran at altitude in ’17, that she realized she had liftoff: “I was like, ‘OK, hold on, we’re really doing something this year!’ That’s when I started to get excited.”

She ran a PR 7.90 later in the season and then came close with a 7.91 for 2nd at USATF. That took her to Belgrade for the Worlds, where she finished 5th in her semi. Outdoors she opened with a 12.50w in Houston and the next week matched that with a legal wind.

The big breakthrough, she says, came at the New York Grand Prix: “I was having a very, very hard time personally, being in a new environment and becoming an actual professional athlete, having to travel and do premeet and everything by myself. That was the first track meet that I was at alone. I was going back and forth with even participating at the last minute. I just went ahead and decided to warm up and got on the line and just went on my gut.”

The result was victory, as she hit 12.40 and topped the 12.53 PR of Jones. Suddenly, she was No. 2 on the world list and the No. 9 American of all-time. “That being the meet before USATF,” she says, “it really made people believe that I was the real deal and was going to be a force to reckon with at Nationals.”

She came to Eugene with her confidence firing on all cylinders. After hitting the first two rounds in 12.41 and 12.60, she says, “I went into the tent and said, ‘I’m going to run 12.3. I don’t know what everyone else is going to do, but that’s what I’m doing.’ And my coach looked at me and he was like, ‘OK, we gonna see.’”

That they did. Johnson blistered a PR 12.35, finishing inches behind Keni Harrison’s 12.34 winner. She moved to =6 among Americans all-time and positioned herself as a podium contender at the Worlds.

Unfortunately, the next trip to Eugene didn’t go as well. In her first round at Worlds, running in lane 2, she stuttered before clearing the first hurdle, lost her steps, then pushed over the second as the field flew away from her. “I just went blank,” she admits. “I was trying to do something that I’ve never done before and that’s have a perfect race, get out, beat everybody to the first hurdle. It was just a lot of pressure.

“It didn’t feel so good at the moment… but that’s what’s going to keep me wanting to push harder, harder, harder.”

After a brief trip to Europe produced so-so results (a DNF and a 4th), Johnson traveled to the Bahamas for the NACAC and a gold medal in 12.62. “I was out of body during that race. All I knew was ‘I gotta make it to the finish line, I gotta make it to the finish line,’ and so to end up with my first international win of the season, knowing that I was already supposed to shut it down prior to going — but I had already agreed to be there and be on the team. I didn’t want to let anybody down or let people think I was gonna out at the last minute. I wanted to protect my name and everything that I had built. It was an amazing way to finish.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Johnson is that even after a season that proved she can compete with the best in the world, as of early October she remains without a major sponsor.

“I honestly think that I’m in this position for a reason,” she analyzes. “If it’s not the right time for me to be sponsored, then it’s not the right time. I honestly think we lose a lot of very, very, very talented track & field athletes because of the way our sponsorships work. They should have evolved as the world’s evolving, as social media and everything is changing. I think that we as a sport have to be able to change and evolve with it.”

She adds, “I think of myself as a sacrificial lamb because I have to speak up for everybody; there are a lot of athletes who are putting up the numbers and making the teams and are in the same position as I am.

“I think I was naïve this year, thinking that if I did half of what I did, then I would be rewarded for my efforts. But it is what it is. We can’t change their minds at the end of the day. We just keep tracking on and we’re blessed to be able to do all this and still be in a position to make it overseas. We’re just going to keep doing what we do and we’re going to make it undeniable.

“This year, we just fell into the season, but next year it’s 110% planned.”

Jones: “I’ve Come Too Far To Just Give Up”

The fastest prep ever in the straightaway hurdles, Tia Jones grew up a prodigy in the event. Coached by her father, Tyronne Jones, she set the still-standing High School Record of 12.84 when she was but a 15-year-old frosh.

Tia Jones destroyed an ancient lifetime best that dated back all the way to her HS frosh year of ’16. (KEVIN MORRIS)

By the time she made it to her senior year, she had World Junior gold and bronze medals, along with a gold from the Pan-Am Juniors. What else would there be for her to accomplish at the prep level? The subject dominated the family dinner table that year, and finally she decided to say no thanks to her Oregon offer and signed with adidas before her senior season got underway in ’19.

Looking back, she says, “I definitely had a hard prayer on which direction I should go because luckily for me, I had the best of both worlds. I could have made either decision, but everything pointed in the direction for me to pull out of high school track.”

That season, she hit a best of 12.86 but struggled at the USATF Champs, running 13.33 and failing to advance from the first round.

She started off the next year with a promising indoor campaign, hitting a PR 7.96 in the heats at the USATF Indoor, but then the pandemic shut everything down.

Not long afterward, her fortunes took another bad turn when she badly ruptured her left Achilles in training. It was an injury so severe she described the tendon as “hanging by a thread.” Surgery followed, and then came an agonizing stretch of 3–4 months of bedrest where she was forbidden to put weight on that leg.

“I slept most of the day because it was so painful,” she recounts. “The prescription medication that the doctor prescribed wasn’t working, so I had to take more than he was telling me to. The doctor told me, literally, the medication was going in my system and just leaving within an hour. It was horrible, the pain was so bad.”

The foot stayed in a cast and elevated for 3 months. Then came the boot, but she still wasn’t allowed to walk on it. “I had a KneeRover and was just trying to be active without being in bed as much. After 7 weeks they told me I should start walking on it slowly. I remember just walking around my kitchen, my first couple steps, it literally felt like it was ripping open. It was so painful; every step just felt like it was ripping. My doctor told me I needed to walk on it as much as I could for 2 months. Eventually we moved toward taking off the boot and walking normally, and I had to do that for another 2 months.

“That’s when I started going to physical therapy and trying to get my calves the same size. My left calf, there was no muscle there, and I lost muscle in my hamstring. It was just so slim, it was crazy to look at.” She admits, “I had those negative thoughts in my mind, thinking maybe I shouldn’t do [track] again. But I was just able to push through it. And when I saw the progression myself, I was able to be more positive about it. It was like, ‘See, you got this. You can do this.’”

Jones threw herself into the rehab process, anxious to make her way back to the sport. Finally, in May of ’21 she lined up for an American Track League event in Marietta. She managed 2nd in 13.44. The next week came The Track Meet in Irvine, where she finished 3rd in 12.95w. “Every step of the way it was so painful, but I was glad I was still in the 12s at least. I knew from that point on, ‘Once I’m fully healed, I can put effort into my races.’”

A pulled hamstring scotched her chances of making it to the Olympic Trials, but Jones was heartened that she could hurdle at all. Back into training she went, now working in Orlando alongside Olympic champion Jasmine Camacho-Quinn under the guidance of Irish coach John Coghlan. The progress continued. “I always knew it was coming,” she says. “I just needed to put my best foot forward. Coming into this year, I could just feel in my spirit that it was gonna be a good season if I do what I need to do.

“When I go to practice, if the coach tells me to do what I need to do, I’m gonna do it. If the coach believes in me, I’m gonna believe in myself as well and I’m gonna perform on the track. I just knew this season was gonna be good because my base training was different. I did more runs than I usually do in my base training. When I stepped on the track, I just felt more physically ready. I was more confident. I felt like that was the difference.”

She opened up with a near-PR 12.90 in early April, and the campaign just kept getting better. At the Golden Games at Mt. SAC, she scored her first PR in 6 years, a 12.59. She warmed up for Nationals with another lifetime best, 12.53, at the New York Grand Prix. Then came the USATF meet.

“I had a lot of personal things going on that took a toll on my mental state,” she says of that period. “I felt like I was kind of alone out there on the field. I was just going out there to do the best that I could. Those three races at Oregon were probably the hardest races of my life. Those 12.5s felt so hard, I just struggled.”

She hit 12.57 and 12.59 in the rounds, and then came up with a 12.59 in the final. That placed her 5th, a result she described as “bittersweet” at the time. That’s when she made the tough decision to leave the Florida training group.

“It just wasn’t good on my mental state,” she says. “Personally, I felt like it was the best decision I could have made, because as soon as I left I got in a more positive mental state. I’m not gonna lie, he’s a great coach. I’m going to take the things he taught me and I will probably forever carry them. I learned just being in that pro group. I learned a lot through everyone. I used that advice through the rest of my season and that was a great decision because I just kept dropping times and never settled.”

Post-Nationals, Jones returned to the Atlanta area and her father’s coaching and again bettered her PR with a 12.52 in Memphis. Then came a 12.49 PR for 3rd at the Chorzów DL. Then a 12.47 PR for 3rd at Lausanne.

At Brussels, she took the runner-up spot with her 12.38. That race, she says, stands out because the time shocked her. “I didn’t think we were going that fast. It felt average while I was running.”

She followed that up with a 12.58 for 2nd in Berlin, then closed out her campaign on her 22nd birthday with a 12.40 runner-up finish behind world champion Tobi Amusan at the DL Final in Zürich —ahead of WC medalists Britany Anderson and Camacho-Quinn. “Every race I had,” she explains, “I looked back on it like, ‘OK, what could I have worked on to make this race better for next time?’”

Still young in the sport, Jones already has the outlook of a veteran, and has grown quite a bit from her days as a prep prodigy. “I’m more well-rounded, more aware of my surroundings and more understanding of the bigger purpose in life,” she says.

Years after turning signing with adidas, she is finally experiencing the fun side of being a professional hurdler. “It’s a great experience. I love going on the circuit and meeting all the different athletes and just being able to be out there in the big leagues with them. I’m definitely having fun traveling the world out here running. I want to do it for as long as my body allows me to.”

For fans, the phoenix-like resurgence of these two hurdlers offers the prospect of many more thrilling races in the future.

Johnson sums up where she is at: “I’m appreciating the steps and understanding that I’m really hitting the goal that I set for myself last year, which was really just to see something, get a glimpse of something that shows me that I belong here in this sport.”

Says Jones, “I don’t ever settle for any time. I always strive to be better. I’ve been like that my entire life. I still have a lot to learn and given me doing this in one year, I can most definitely push forward and keep getting better for the rest of my life.”

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