WE ALL FIGURED 2021 might be a season of surprises, what with 2020 going down as a virtual non-season. No one, though, can say they were quite ready for the explosive 400 emergence of Johnnie Blockburger to equal-9th on the all-time Junior (U20) list.
An 18-year-old Arizona frosh, Blockburger took to the blocks at the Jim Click Shootout home meet (April 10), stormed through the lap’s first half and rolled home in 44.71 to an 0.93 victory margin over BYU’s Michael Bluth.
The time took him to No. 4 on the all-time U.S. Junior list (see chart) behind a pair who won Olympic gold in their careers (Steve Lewis and LaShawn Merritt) and Darrell Robinson, whose 44.69 has stood as the High School Record for 39 years. (Continued below)
What?! Blockburger’s prep best as a Tucson High junior in ’19 was a mere 48.02. The C19 lockdown, of course, closed off his high school senior season along with everyone else’s.
“Definitely going into my senior year, I was really excited for it,” Blockburger says. “I knew I was going to do something better than junior year, but when that all got canceled, I was like, ‘Alright, I have to do something big outdoors of my freshman year because that’s where I can make my mark kind of.’
“But I didn’t think I’d go from a 48.1 my junior year to a 44. I didn’t know I’d PR by that much.” Don’t say you knew unless you are Francesca Green, Arizona’s sprints coach, and even she was probably stunned by Blockburger’s time.
What the world had known was that Blockburger has athlete genes working for him. His dad is 7-time decathlon U.S. Ranker Sheldon Blockburger, also a collegiate coach with a lengthy résumé. LSU alum Sheldon U.S.-Ranked 7 times 1987–94, Ranked No. 2 in ’89 and cranked his 8301w PR placing 3rd at the ’90 USATF Champs.
Johnnie has a twin sister with talent, too: Wildcat frosh Alyssa, who has run 2:10.00 for 800 this spring, her first in the event.
To be sure, Blockburger didn’t catapult directly from 48.02 to the U20 all-time list. He sprinted 45.83 at the Willie Williams Classic in March, dashed a 100 in 10.28 a week after that — and the weekend after his smokin’ lap lowered his 200 best to 20.70.
Arizona’s head coach Fred Harvey, however, knew before Blockburger arrived on campus that the Wildcat yearling possessed uncommon gifts. “With Johnnie Blockburger and his twin Alyssa, we always knew the talent was there, even though [everyone] may not have seen it coming,” Harvey says.
“There’s one moment that I really saw it coming in. It may not mean much to anyone, but last year indoors in Albuquerque he ran a 200m. In the race, when you looked at it, it was one of those things, he ran 21.9 indoors and it looked like he was literally striding. Right then and there, I saw, ‘Yeah, there it is. This is exceptional talent.’”
Now in his 19th year guiding the Wildcats after 15 seasons with the program as an assistant and associate head coach, Harvey had a vision of Blockburger that also jibed with memories of legends he watched train back when he was in high school.
“Being the head coach and director of track & field and having an opportunity to coach so many talented athletes for so long — and growing up in the San José area and Lee Evans training at our high school, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and having vivid memories of those folks — you know, looking at Johnnie’s talent, really, it’s something special.”
That there’s a trio of sprinter’s it’s good to be compared with. Understatement alert!
Harvey also says, “I want to make sure that credit always goes where it needs to go. I’m the head coach, director of track & field. I’ve coached some folks and that’s great. As for the inner workings of their relationship and the development of Johnnie, Coach Francesca Green has done, I think, a remarkable job with structuring the program, but also with that line of communication, which we all know is so important.”
In fact, a conversation with Green set up the shocker time at the Click Shootout.
“After I got the [Arizona] freshman record,” Blockburger explains, “I was like, ‘Hey Coach, what’s the school record?’” Green shared that the Wildcat best was 45.31 by Bobby McCoy in ’08 and told Blockburger, “If you break it, I’ll have him come down and meet you personally.”
Sounded good to Blockburger: “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll go do it right now. Let’s go.’
“And I kinda got out and I just wanted to go fast the whole time for the first 200. That’s kind of an understatement for it, but I just wanted to go fast.”
Blockburger got out blazing fast by all accounts. “It was weird,” he recalls, “’cause when I got to the 200 mark, I was already past everyone kind of, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m really doing this, I’m doing it.’ And then I come off the final curve and I get like 20, 30m into the finish and I see like 38 on the clock.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m really close. Let me keep going.’ And then before I knew it, I was across the line and they said, I came in at like 20.9 for my first 200. So I was like, ‘That’s really big.’ I never ran 20 in the open 2 so it was crazy to do it in a 4.” (Continued below)
— Johnnie Blockburger (@JohnnieBlockbu1) April 11, 2021
As you may guess, there is almost a making of a decathlete story here. “My parents always pushed me to do some sport as long as I’m doing something,” Blockburger says. “So I did baseball, flag football, basketball, but in I guess sixth or seventh grade, I actually got into it and I started just high jumping and long jumping. Then my freshman year I got hurt long jumping ’cause I didn’t have enough strength coming out of basketball.
“So when I recovered, I was like, ‘Let me go to sprints,’ and my first actual 400 was like a 49.79.” Blockburger decided, “‘Oh, I guess that’s my new regular,’ you know, so I started doing that more often and then sprints. Then after that I was like, ’Wait, I can high jump too.’ So I high jumped like 6-8 [2.03] my junior year.
“And then my dad said, ‘If you really want to, you can do the decathlon,’
“But I was like, ‘Maybe. It depends how far I can go with the 400 before I start doing pole vault and hurdles and all that,’ you know.”
OK. Seems his primary event is set for the time being. Rather promisingly. What will be his next angle of attack?
“Honestly, I think I’m just going to work on finishing,” Blockburger says. “I know after I saw the [clock late in his 44.71] my form got a little worse than what it normally is, so hopefully I can just get the form towards the end of the race better and then maybe get out of the blocks a little faster. I’m wanting to go for 43 next week. So that’s my goal.”
Not exactly a baby step, but for Blockburger his frosh campaign has already been a giant leap.