By Tom Rohrer
Surrounded by the wheat fields, green pastures and rolling hills of the Palouse, Conner Johnsen can still see the trails and routes of his hometown.
“There’s a beauty that’s easy to notice, and it’s really amplified when you’re running outside,” Johnsen said of the Bellingham area. “There are so many trails that you get a little lost out there, but in a way that allows you to still perform at a high level. It’s pretty inspiring.”
Following his prolific four year run on both the track and field and cross country teams at Sehome High School, Johnsen decided to trek across the state to continue his education and distance running career at Washington State University in Pullman. Johnsen led Sehome to the 2A Boys championships in both cross country and track and field his senior year and finished third place individually at the state cross country championships.
Now past the midway point of the outdoor track and field season, the 2013 2A State Champion in the 1600 and 3200 meter races is preparing for the future and taking advantage of the present opportunities.
“The distance team for outdoor is very deep, so I’m there to step in if needed. I’m mainly looking at the season as an opportunity to be ready for cross country next fall,” he said. “I’ll run in a few races, but my eye is on next fall.”
During the fall cross country season, Johnsen competed in five events and finished 70th overall at the Pac-12 Conference Championship.
It was a promising start to a potentially prolific collegiate career. Even more impressive was Johnsen’s ability to transition quickly from high school to college athletics.
“It was a better transition then I thought I would be,” said Johnsen. “I ran at the varsity level right off the bat and wasn’t expecting that. Being put in that position, I think it raised my competitive focus. It was sort of sink or swim and I was pleased with how I reacted in that situation.”
Helping Johnsen with that transition was junior Lee George, a distance runner from Ferndale High School. The connection the two forged will likely have a long lasting impact on Johnsen’s time in Pullman.
“George was a senior when I was a high school freshman and I knew of him but didn’t know him personally,” he said. “This last summer, I met Lee for the first time. I was running and training on my own and he called me up and basically said were going to be teammates and let’s run. I got to know him really well. He’s a great guy and a good role model. Having someone like that, it was huge.
Along with the advice handed down from George, Johnsen has noticed a positive change in his technique and approach thanks to the guidance from Washington State University head cross country coach Dr. Tim Riley.
“He’s really helped me to be more relaxed as a runner. Coaches were always telling me in high school to relax and I never relaxed and never understood what they were saying. I was uptight and nervous,” Johnsen said. “He’s really helped me calm down as a racer. I used to hit points in the race where everyone speeds up. I would break out and go too quick at those points. Now, I’m more in control and able to maintain a certain pace.”
Johnsen has benefitted from strong coaching dating back to his days at Sehome, where the distance and cross country programs are overseen by Mark Kerr and Kevin Ray. As a middle school student and underclassman at Sehome, Johansen looked up to Scott Carlyle (2009 and 2010 2A state cross country champion) and Mason McHenry (2008 2A 800 meter champion). By his junior year, Johnsen was making his own legacy as a Seahawk. He finished fifth at the 2011 2A State Cross Country Championships, leading to a personal realization about his future in the sport.
“I thought, I can go to the next level and I sat down with my coaches and we spoke about ramping my training up,” he said. “That year was the season where things sort of clicked and came together. I felt confident enough to pursue a college career at that point.”
When initially brainstorming possible collegiate destinations, Washington State University was not considered an option. While his father Cris graduated from the school, Johnsen had never envisioned himself making the trek east of the Cascade Mountains.
“Honestly, it wasn’t until (Coach Riley) called me that I thought I would attend WSU,” Johnsen said. “I remember thinking, ‘wow this is the Pac-12,’ and I may regret not competing at that level four years later.”
Nearly a full year into his time at WSU, Johnsen is happy with his decision.
“The overall support system here is really great. It’s a great, small community where everyone looks out for each other, sort of Cougs looking out for Cougs,” Johnsen said. “I remember sitting at Sea-Tac Airport in my school gear and the amount of people who said ‘Go Cougs’ was ridiculous. Things like that help you realize what a special place this is.”
Following the end of the academic year and the outdoor track and field season, Johnsen plans on returning home for the summer, the perfect place to continue his training.
“Bellingham, it’s not a football strong area like other areas of the state so people really branch out to running,” he said. “There’s not really a better place to train than in Bellingham, and I love it during the summer,”
“It will be nice to come home, get readjusted and hit the trails.”