No Finish Line
Track & Field: Alissa Brooks-Johnson Will Keep Competing Following Distinguished WSU Career
By Jordan Nailon
In sixth grade, Alissa Brooks-Johnson decided to try something new.
More accurately, her mother encouraged her to pick up a new sport. That spring, Brooks-Johnson turned out for the middle school track team in what would become the first step in a long and storied journey that has taken her all over the country, and may wind up taking her around the world if everything falls into place.
“I was really just giving it a try. My mom had competed in track in her high school days and so she kind of pushed me to try it out and see if I liked it,” said Brooks-Johnson, 22, who just completed her redshirt senior season on the Washington State University track & field team.
As it turns out, Mom really did know best.
Brooks-Johnson, a Doty native who graduated from Pe Ell High School, says she took to the uniquely competitive environment of track right away and never looked back to see if anyone was gaining on her. Last weekend, Brooks-Johnson put her well honed talents on full display with a sixth place finish in the heptathlon at the NCAA Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
Brooks-Johnson says the hurdles have always been one of her favorite events, dating all the way back to her middle school days, because good form seemed to come naturally to her.
“I kind of progressed pretty quickly. I went from four step to three step on the hurdles when I was still in middle school,” she said. “I really enjoy hurdles because it’s challenging, and from doing 100 hurdles and 400 hurdles, I think it’s easier to focus on something instead of just an open sprint so your mind doesn’t wander.”
That prowess in the hurdles paid dividends for Brooks-Johnson last weekend when she notched a career best mark of 13.84 seconds in the 100-meter hurdles at the NCAA championships. She was also able to post a fifth place finish in the 800-meter race with a time of 2 minutes, 15.69 seconds. She says that the high jump and throwing events are often the most difficult for her just because of the technical nature of the competition.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to relax and just focus on what I need to do,” said Brooks-Johnson.
Despite that stubborn self doubt, Brooks-Johnson managed to go out and notch a career best mark of 42 feet, 2 ¾ inches. She also placed eighth in the javelin with a season-best heave of 140 feet, 7 inches and finished 12th in the long jump with a distance of 18-9 ¼.
Brooks-Johnson is a three-time Pac-12 champion in the heptathlon and also registered a sixth place heptathlon finish in the 2017 NCAA Championships. In spite of those impressive finishes, Brooks-Johnson always found herself slightly disappointed with her final marks until this year.
“It’s a funny thing because you’re having fun when you’re doing well, when you’re PR-ing and getting the marks that you’ve been wanting to get,” explained Brooks-Johnson. “When it’s not going so well it’s more of a grind, a mental grind, and pushing through any doubt that you have with yourself and just relying on your training and being in shape and just everything that you’ve worked for.”
That hard work was by no means restricted to the track though. She says time management was the most difficult part of her time at WSU.
“For me, being a heptathlete and a student-athlete, I’m waking up and going to class and then I’m having multiple practices a day just because I don’t just do one event and I’m usually one of the last ones to leave the track,” said Brooks-Johnson.
She noted that a typical day would include multiple practices on the track, time in the classroom, time in the weight room, medical treatment to keep her body tuned up for competitions, then homework and all of the other daily tasks a person must tackle would be waiting for her each night.
It’s unclear if she ever found time to sleep.
“Once the season begins, you’re not only doing that stuff but you’re also traveling almost every single weekend,” added Brooks-Johnson.
Still, Brooks-Johnson managed to keep up with her responsibilities and now sits only a few credits shy of a double major degree split between apparel merchandise design and textiles, and sports management, with a minor in business. Now though, with her collegiate athletic career all wrapped up, she could easily pack away the spikes and track suit and start angling for a more traditional set of responsibilities that might allow for some casual down time.
However, while Brooks-Johnson is indeed beginning to formulate a career plan (she lists coaching, athletic director, and team sports department work as three possible options), she has no plans to stop competing in track and field in the near future. She says she’s still working out with her old teammates and plans to compete in the USA Track and Field Championships in Iowa next week and will likely come back to Pullman next year to continue training with her former teammates.
Brooks-Johnson says her plan is to “just see where my career can go and how far I can take it.” If she is able to place in the top eight in the country, then she would qualify for the USA National team and could ultimately find herself making appearances in world championship events around the globe.
“I’ve kind of always thought about it but in the past, I haven’t been that happy with my final marks at the end of the season,” said Brooks-Johnson. “This season has been one of my best and I just want to keep competing and see how everything works out and hopefully I can get up to the 6,000 (points) mark in the heptathlon.”
After a lower back injury popped up toward the end of her sophomore campaign, Brooks-Johnson wound up sitting out her junior season as a medical redshirt. She said that falling out of the groove with her routine and teammates was difficult but she’s happy that she took the time to fully recover so she could be at her best in her final two collegiate campaigns.
A three sport athlete at Pe Ell who played basketball and volleyball in addition to competing in track, Brooks-Johnson says she sees an advantage to a diverse training regimine. It’s a notion that runs counter to the recent trend to push high school athletes toward specialization in one sport in an effort to pick up college scholarships.
“I really enjoyed all of the sports. I’d say that basketball at the time was probably my favorite. I loved the adrenaline and the team aspect,” noted Brooks-Johnson. “Knowing what I know now, I think that if I’d only specialized in one sport that I’d be burnt out or tired with that sport or just more annoyed and more hard on myself. I think it benefits you to be diverse and have more ability and options to do things in different sports because all sports are going to have that competitive drive and they’re all going to teach you something different. I think having all of that under your belt will help you stand out even more and make you a better overall athlete.”
Coming from a small school and a rural community, Brooks-Johnson said that attending WSU in the midst of the rolling palouse was a near perfect match.
“I think it was definitely a great fit for me. I know a lot of people talk about Pullman and how it’s hard for them to adjust, because it is a big university but I thought it was great for me,” she said. “Then of course staying in the country and kind of that same close community feel as I had in Pe Ell, I think the transition went really well for me.”
One memory that sticks out to Brooks-Johnson like a space mountain above the neverending wheat fields of The Palouse is a trip to California after the Pac-12 Championships as an underclassman.
“I remember in my sophomore year after Pac-12s, we were in L.A. and we got to go to Disneyland,” she recalled. “That was super fun because I hadn’t been there since I was little so I hardly remembered what it was like.”
While she’s mostly been away from West Lewis County for five years now, Brooks-Johnson says the community has never ceased supporting her D-I endeavors.
“Coming from a small town, it’s obviously a really big deal for us,” she said, “The town is so happy for me, which is so great because the town makes me feel like a superstar, which is kind of funny, but it’s amazing.”
Brooks-Johnson noted that she had several schoolmates throughout her years in Pullman that she knows from back home, including her cousin. She added that Regyn Gaffney of Adna was a teammate on the WSU track team.
“A lot of my close friends and they are always talking to me and congratulating me and talking to me about how they are doing back home. And then of course there’s my mom and my dad and even my grandparents occasionally. I get a lot of talk, or congratulations, when I go home,” Brooks-Johnson added. “It’s such a great feeling knowing that they’ve always got my back.”