Closing Time

<b>Thornwood High (Ill.)</b> senior sprinter <b>Jeremy Johnson</b> is a six-time state champ thanks to his finishing kick.

In the real world, 20 meters isn't much ground to cover.

Twenty meters — also known to Americans as 65.62 feet (or, in our football-mad nation, 22 yards) — is about how far you'd have to travel to get from the front of a classroom to the back. It's approximately the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate in baseball. It's a line for the bathroom at halftime of a high school basketball game.

For Thornwood High sprinter Jeremy Johnson, it was the slice of track he had to overcome during a 4x200-meter preliminary relay at the 2002 IHSA Class AA state track and field meet as a sophomore to help keep his team's reputation as the state's most dominant relay squad intact. It also represented the distance Johnson had to travel between himself and a new reputation — as an anchor leg who strikes fear in the hearts of opponents, regardless of how many meters ahead they are.

An anchor leg who puts the race to bed the minute he grabs the baton. The Sandman.

"When I got the baton, I couldn't believe how far ahead the other guy was," recalls the 5-foot-11, 162-pound Johnson, 17, now a senior at Thornwood. "But I couldn't worry about that. My job is: Get the baton, win the race. It's better to go for it and lose than not to go for it at all. I went for it and I got it."

Thornwood went on to win the 4x200 state title in 2002, one of three relay titles (along with the 4x100 and 4x400) Johnson helped the Thunderbirds capture en route to a 30-point advantage over MacArthur High of Decatur for their second straight Class AA team state championship.

Last spring, Thornwood made it a three-peat led by Johnson, who won individual state titles in the 200- and 400-meter dashes and anchored the Thunderbirds' winning 4x100 relay. Johnson established himself as the most feared sprinter in the state and one of the nation's best with times of 21.68 seconds in the 200 and 48.87 in the 400.

"He's pretty focused on what he's doing," says Thornwood track coach Gary Haupert. "He's a competitor. He doesn't like to lose. Every time he steps on the track, he wants to win the race. And he's a great finisher."

Johnson's competitive fire had to be stoked a bit as a youngster. He grew up in Harvey, where as an incoming freshman at Thornton High he got his first taste of track and field. A shortstop/second baseman on the diamond during his youth, Johnson grew tired of baseball and was looking for a new challenge when he wandered across the Thornton track team working out in anticipation of the new season.

The coaches threw him into the mix with the older kids to see what he could do. Johnson had no idea who any of his fellow runners were — or how old they were — but it didn't matter to him. All that mattered was winning.

"They just told me to get in line and run with them," says Johnson. "I hate to lose, so I just stuck with it."

The trial by fire did wonders for Johnson's competitive spirit because he saw first-hand the passion and aggression it took to win a sprint. His competitiveness is a trait he has since taken to a new level, even if he isn't always proud of it. Johnson says he can't even stand losing at video games.

"I just don't like to lose," he says. "I don't really like to tell people how competitive I really am, but I just don't like it."

Following his freshman year at Thornton, Johnson's family took a trip to look at houses. They ended up getting lost in South Holland, but stumbled upon a house they fell in love with and subsequently purchased. That meant a move from Thornton to Thornwood, the defending state champion and one of the most imposing track programs in the Midwest.

Instead of worrying about fitting in with what is essentially track royalty in Illinois, Johnson wanted badly to rise to the challenge. It took just one trip to the track office for Johnson to see what path he wanted his career to follow.

"They keep pictures of all the guys who finished top five at states next to the track office," says Johnson. "When I saw that, I knew that was my goal."

Mission accomplished. In fact, Johnson's exploits in his first two years at Thornwood — six state titles between individual and relay events — attracted attention from numerous college coaches, who quickly realized how skilled and determined Johnson was. Johnson had his pick of schools in the Southeastern Conference, considered the nation's premier track and field conference, and eventually settled on the University of Kentucky, which he says reminds him of his hometown and also offered his preferred major, communications.

But his final season at Thornwood remains, with the chance to help lead the Thunderbirds to three team state titles in his three years there. It doesn't get much better than that on both a personal and team level, and coach Haupert says Johnson's unique abilities go a long way in explaining Thornwood's recent success.

"He's very versatile in that he runs long sprints well and short sprints well," says Haupert, who has been the head coach at Thornwood for 29 years. "In that respect, we haven't had too many kids like him."

And don't expect Johnson's competitiveness to dwindle now that he's won all those state titles. He wants to close out his high school career in his trademark fashion — by finishing strong.

"This year, everything starts all over again," says Johnson. "I want to go out and get it like I did last year."

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