EWU cross country’s Colton Johnsen: a star on the rise

Johnsen winning the Montana Invitational on Sept. 29. Courtesy of EWU Sports Information.

Johnsen winning the Montana Invitational on Sept. 29. Courtesy of EWU Sports Information.

By Logan Stanley, Managing Editor

About a year ago, EWU’s head cross country coach Chris Shane and I were sitting in his office. We were discussing the recent performance by a particular freshmen on the men’s side. Shane told me that this kid had the potential to be real good. A year later, the coach’s prophecy is coming true.

Born on May 8, 1998 in Bellingham, Washington, Colton Johnsen is the youngest of two children. The son of two supportive parents, Johnsen participated in a handful of sports growing up. He dabbled in basketball and baseball, but mainly stuck to soccer. This love of soccer would unknowingly end up playing a crucial role in the development of Johnsen’s running ability.

It was in the sixth grade when Johnsen joined a track and field team for the first time. For a number of reasons, Johnsen didn’t take the sport seriously right away. His dedication to running did not begin until his sophomore year at Sehome High School.

The reason Johnsen initially joined track and field stemmed not from his love of the sport, but because of genetics.

“I saw [my older brother Connor] was talented and I thought maybe I would be too just because I was related to him,” Johnsen said.

Talented is an understatement. In high school, Connor Johnsen was one of the state’s top middle-distance runners in the 1600 and 3200 meter races. During his senior year, he was a double state champion in both those aforementioned distances.

Connor Johnsen eclipsed the nine-minute barrier for the 3200-meters while in high school, a notable feat. He also helped lead Sehome High School to a state championship, both in cross country and track and field during his senior year. After high school, Johnsen headed to Washington State University to continue his academic and athletic career.

You could say the talent runs in the family.

Leading up to his second year at Sehome in 2013, Johnsen trained in the summer — a first for the then 16-year-old runner. It would be the team’s first year without his older brother since 2008, but there would be no drop-off. The final three years of Johnsen’s career at Sehome saw the cross country team win three consecutive state championships.

While the team experienced great success, Johnsen himself had yet to capture top glory. That would come during his senior year, just like his older brother.

Every year, the WIAA Cross Country State Championships are held in Pasco, Washington at the Sun Willows Golf Course. It was there that Johnsen would cement himself as one of the state’s best distance runners and make his informal introduction to a spectator in the stands, who was there just to watch some championship racing.

That certain spectator was Chris Shane. Not scouting any runner in particular, Shane was on his first official recruiting trip as head coach of the EWU cross country teams. He was only two months into the job when he decided to head to the state championship meet.

“I remember it vividly,” said Shane. “I was standing on the fence line with about 350 meters to go in the race and I see Colton and one of his teammates. They’re in third or fourth place, maybe fifth or sixth place. And I always like to look into a kid’s eyes with about 350 [meters] to go, just far enough to where they can’t see the finish line.”

“I want to know what is going through their mind in that moment. When I looked at him, and I looked at his teammate, I saw just fire. Pure fire. And I loved it. In fact, I was so struck by that look that I sprinted across the field to see the actual finish. I knew he was moving well, but I wanted to see how well. It was one of the most spectacular finishes I’ve seen.”

Johnsen ended up being edged out by .02 seconds to finish in second place in that race, the last of his high school cross country career. It was one of the races that Johnsen said showed to himself that his ability was special.

Shane immediately went to Johnsen’s coach after the race and asked to speak with the 17-year-old senior. The two had a conversation and an official visit was set up. There was interest from the University of Washington and Washington State University, but Johnsen eventually settled on EWU as his school of choice.

Upon joining EWU, Johnsen walked into a peculiar situation. Johnsen was a freshman, but he was faced with high expectations, and tasked with being the No. 1 runner for the men’s team. It was that pressure that eventually led to Johnsen dropping out of a few races.

He said he never really dealt with the issue head-on and that caused stress on himself. But, even with this newfound adversity, the freshman still excelled. During his first campaign at EWU, Johnsen clocked 14:45.04 for 5,000 meters in indoor track and was invited to the USA Junior Cross Country Championships in Bend, Oregon in February 2017.

Unfortunately, he got sick before the race and was unable to finish. But the selection to the race alone exemplifies Johnsen’s ability.

This season, things seem to be falling into place for Johnsen. Already, Johnsen has run under 25 minutes for 8,000 meters and has a first-place finish under his belt (Montana Invitational on Sept. 29).

As November quickly approaches and the warm weather fades, the championship portion of the cross country season looms on the horizon. Next ahead is the Pre-National Cross Country meet, where Johnsen will get his first taste of some top-level Division 1 runners, as powerhouse schools like the University of Colorado and the University of Oregon will be in attendance.

That meet is on Saturday, Oct. 14 with coverage beginning at 7 a.m. on FloTrack, and will be held in Louisville, Kentucky at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park.