by: Weldon Johnson, LetsRun.com
March 13, 2014
Eight years ago at the 2006 NCAA Indoor Championships, Johanna Nilsson of Sweden and Northern Arizona University dominated the mile run, winning by a ridiculous 2.40 seconds. Ninety minutes later, Nilsson was back on the track for the women’s 3000m final which she would win by 3.61 seconds. This was coming off of a cross country season where Nilsson dominated the NCAA championships, winning by over 12 seconds and breaking Shalane Flanagan’s course record, and then won the bronze medal at the European Cross Country Championships.
After her dominant wins at indoor NCAAs, Nilsson would never run a competitive race again. She voluntarily chose to walk away from the sport.
Johanna Nilsson was a free spirit who marched to the beat of her own drum. She realized that there were things way more important in her life than running.
Sadly, Johanna’s life came to a premature end when she took her own life this past summer at the age of 30.
This story is meant to celebrate the life of Johanna.
I only casually knew Johanna during my days living and training in Flagstaff, Arizona, where Johanna attended Northern Arizona University. It was impossible not to hear about her and how she was a free spirit. During Johanna’s freshman year in 2003, she won the NCAA indoor mile title. Soon after, I heard stories from my roommate who was friends with some of the guys on the NAU team that Johanna had gone AWOL and was in Mexico hanging out on the beach for a few weeks.
By pure chance, I happened to be meeting with NAU head coach Ron Mann in his office one day at the exact moment when his star returned from Mexico. Having been gone for a couple weeks, she just casually popped her head into the office and said with a smile, “Hi coach.” Coach Mann just replied with a cheerful greeting of his own.
Coaching Johanna was not easy, but staying mad at her was impossible. Last summer after Johanna’s death, coach Mann reflected back on coaching Johanna. “What a joy she was to work with,” coach Mann said, then adding, “a joy and a challenge.” After she won NCAAs, coach Mann said she “had one of the best workouts I’ve ever administered” and then a few weeks later was walking off the track, telling him, “Coach, I just don’t feel like I’m into it.”
Whatever Johanna did she did with zeal, but the problem for Johanna’s track coaches was she had a lot of other interests besides running. According to coach Mann, Johanna’s focus soon became traveling and meeting new people. Other times it was reading, or her friendships. Often, it definitely was not running. However, coach Mann said when the pendulum shifted and Johanna was into running, she became a joy to coach.
“She challenged you to give her something great because she would achieve it,” Mann said.
A decade later, he recounted specific workouts Johanna did and how she “did everything you asked her to do”. He talked about her amazing talent, her ability to run a 54 second quarter and 5 mile tempo. However, she wasn’t content just to run; she wanted to know why they were doing what they were doing. The zeal and curiosity she had for life was now being applied to running.
Johanna’s older sister, Ida, who was the NCAA champion in the steeplechase in 2004, was on the NAU team with Johanna. One of coach Mann’s favorite memories of Johanna was a workout she did with Ida in January of 2004. He reminisced about “what a beautiful situation it was” and how “I just remember the beautiful form of them running and how the two of them made this wonderful blend” as they gracefully powered along on the dirt roads, in the majestic open country below Flagstaff.
Power, grace, zeal, beauty, even indifference; Johanna had it all.
Coach Mann eventually moved on to coach at the University of Louisville and John Hayes became Johanna’s coach. When he took over, Johanna was “tired of competing” and had taken some time to travel throughout India. When she resumed school in January, she was “VERY unfit” as coach Hayes wrote. However, soon the quest for greatness on the oval was there again for Johanna.
“When Johanna was training she was as driven as any athlete I have seen. All of her friends looked at her as a chilled out person, but I saw the complete opposite. She cared so much that 2nd was never an option. No one likes to lose but Johanna was different in her hate of not winning,” Hayes wrote. Johanna would get second at NCAAs in the 1500m that spring in 2005. Coach Hayes at the time was impressed with how far she had come. “I thought at the time that she was pretty fit and (it was) an amazing accomplishment. What I didn’t know was that she was not even close to as fit as she would become.”
Johanna’s final year at NAU was such a thing of beauty that I’ll let coach Hayes’ words speak for themselves:
“She returned in the fall and was not one of our top 5 throughout September. By the Pre NCAA meet I think she placed around 7th or 9th (overall) but over the next month her fitness became unreal.
The Sunday after Regionals and 8 days prior to NCAA she was [supposed] to run 70-80 min. After 2 hours she had not come back. Needless to say, I was concerned. After 2.5 hours she finally came back. I know she was not running the whole time but she certainly put in much more than the 70-80 that I asked her.
When the NCAA meet came around I thought no one really had a chance. She hung around until about 1200m to go. I only saw her blonde pony tail from a distance and thought Ari Lambie was gapping her (maybe her 2.5 hours was hurting her) but later realized that she was just taking off her gloves. After that it was over and she ran 19:32-33 on the course in Terre Haute. I have no doubt she could have gone significantly faster.
A few weeks later she placed 3rd in the senior women’s race at European XC losing to Lornah Kiplagat by 6 seconds but closing hard at the end.
When indoors came we decided to focus on just getting base work so she could do well in the European Championships which were in Sweden that summer. We planned to redshirt her outdoor. She started getting worried because she felt she had no speed so we did a speed endurance session at 7,000 feet on NAU’s indoor track. 3x600m with 5 and 7 min rest. She ran 1:32, 1:31 and 1:31. At that point she felt confident. She went on to win pretty easily the indoor mile and then 80 min later the 3k. That was her last competitive track meet.”
Coach Hayes said that outdoor season the team was competing at Stanford and Johanna found a way to come up and watch. The team was at a beach and:
“She and I were walking on a beach that I took the team to and that is when she told me she was done. It was not a surprise. Some people say ‘why would she throw away that talent?’ She understood that there are things way more important in the world. Johanna loved running but she liked to do it her way – a nice easy run through the woods in Flagstaff and enjoy nature.”
The running career of Johanna Nilsson was over, but her free spirit and zeal would continue. According to Hayes, that summer she hitchhiked up through Utah, and the northwest and all the way to the northeast before flying back to Arizona. Once again it drove her coach crazy, but according to Hayes, hitchhiking was part of the plan for Johanna as “she saw the good in everyone and did not consider it to be a risk.”
Johanna’s “quest for knowledge” as coach Mann put it would continue. It was a part of who she was. “One of the things that is true of most highly gifted athletes, highly gifted people in all walks of life, is their ability to focus and their ability to be involved or absorbed in whatever they are doing.”
This focus for Johanna even extended to Halloween costumes. A fond memory for Mann was one Halloween, when Johanna wanted to be a frog, not any frog, but the most amazing frog ever. Coach Mann said in awe, “She was completely focused on being the best costume she could be.”
Hopefully, all of us can learn from Johanna by trying to be the best we can be with the limited time we have on this earth.
Coach Hayes put it well when he said, “I can only say that those who know her will always miss her for who she was. She was a fun, quirky and amazing girl. She often gave me fits (as a coach) as I never knew if she would leave running the next day. The world has lost a very good, young woman.”
I can say without a doubt, the world needs more Johanna Nilssons. Coach Mann spoke about the “wonderful” Nilsson family that searches for “excellence in everything they do.” I extend my condolences to them, and everyone who knew Johanna. If you have a memory of Johanna you would like to share, email me.