Olivia Johnson: Victory Rests With the Lord

Olivia Johnson-Okoboji-Marquette

Olivia Johnson-Okoboji-Marquette
©Marquette Athletics

Notebooks, pencils, and paper are standard items found on most people’s back-to-school lists. For me, though, the most critical school supply has always been my planner.  I’m lost without one.  During most of my running career, I tried to maintain that same level of planning and control over my training, as well.  Throughout the course of many failures and changed plans, however, I began to realize that running is really a process that works the best when I let go of “my ultimate plan” and make the best of what His plan is for me.

I played four different sports in high school but had no aspirations of being a collegiate athlete until my senior year when Okoboji hired its mile/two-mile school record holder, Brad Peter, to be the new coach for cross country and women’s track.  Under his guidance, my whole perspective on running was changed.  Suddenly, running a mile warm-up seemed natural, and I even tried out the concept of running twice a day.  Throughout that winter, I ran after basketball practice and entered my senior track season fit and rarin’ to go.  After visiting a handful of schools, I also signed to run at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.  While the decision felt like a tough one, in my heart I always knew I would follow the Korver family footsteps and be a Red Raider.

After the state track meet, Coach Peter set up a summer training plan for me that I followed down to the last mile.  By August, I was comfortably running 40 miles a week, far more than I had ever run in the past.  My first meet as a Red Raider ended up also being my first xc title, and it began to reshape how I viewed my season. Instead of just wanting to contribute, I now began to hold myself to the same higher standard I’d had in high school.  At the end of the season, our team qualified for the NAIA National Championships.  However, the night before the race, I remember sitting in my hotel room, completely unmotivated to race the next morning. I’d been battling a hamstring issue, was feeling fatigued, and the course was much hillier than anything I’d ever raced.  I texted my thoughts to my high school coach, one of a good handful of Okoboji supporters on their way to the meet at UW-Parkside in WI, and he replied “Olivia, I drove all this way. You’d better damn well get in the mood to race.”  Unbeknownst to me, his old college roommate, Mike Nelson, the newly-hired coach at Marquette University, was also joining him at the meet the next morning.

When the gun fired at 11:00 am, it became apparent that there was a bigger plan for this race than what I had in mind.  I finished 3rd with a big 20-second PR, and within the week, began to wonder how fast I could be if I ran at the NCAA Division I level.  For various reasons, I decided to wait to look into transferring until after my sophomore year.  However, despite continuing to improve throughout the indoor and outdoor track seasons and earning All-American honors, I felt an unhappiness and restlessness as I began my summer training in 2008.  One June afternoon, tired of my moodiness, my mom suggested that perhaps I should contact D-I schools this summer.  I decided to give it a shot and contacted two schools. Long story short, less than six weeks later, I was packing my bags to go to pre-season camp at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.

Although I had visited once a few weeks earlier, as I took Exit 309B to actually go to Marquette, the

Olivia Johnson-Okoboji-Marquette©courtesy Marquette Athletics

Olivia Johnson-Okoboji-Marquette
©courtesy Marquette Athletics

voices of doubt suddenly appeared much stronger; “Oh Olivia, what have you gotten yourself into this time..” Up until this point, Sioux Falls had been a big city for me, and I’d never even used public transportation before.  This small-town girl, who was used to leaving her dorm room and bike unlocked, had a lot to learn.  My teammates took good care of me, though, and I loved being in an environment where running was paramount.  One major perk of the transition was the travel. As MU was a member of the Big East Conference, going to Notre Dame or New York to race became commonplace. And although my sophomore year and beginning of my junior year failed to show any signs of the potential I’d hoped to develop, I found myself developing in other ways.  For one, Coach Nelson constantly discussed performing well in the classroom and succeeding beyond the four years at MU.  Secondly, my faith also had to become my own. I no longer had parents reading the Bible with me after supper or required chapel each morning.  As I struggled to understand why running was not going as I had planned, I began to rely more on my Heavenly Father and truly develop my own relationship with Him.

My junior year of track, things finally started to click again, and we chased the elusive and unknown 1500-meter NCAA Regional mark (we thought it would take a 4:27).  In May, after using the 7-hour drive home to reflect on my 4:28.01 season and get ready to start my two-week break, I walked into my house to hear my phone ring.  I picked up to hear Coach Ellen, one of our assistants, on the other end, asking what I was up to the next week.  Not much, I replied. “Good. Pack your cowboys boots, then, because you’re headed to Austin.” One of the few times I’ve ever screamed (sorry again, Ellen), it turned out I was one of the last of 48 runners to make the Regionals cut.

That summer, I interned part-time with an accounting firm back home.  The managing partner,

also a runner, had agreed to let me just work three days a week so that I could train my heart out.  My senior year, then, started off with my fastest xc season to date.  At my end of the season meeting before Thanksgiving, Coach Nelson and I excitedly wrote out what I’d race at each track meet and our plan to attack the track season.  Workouts were going well, and easy runs under 7-minute pace felt relaxed; things were looking good.  However, on the Monday of winter finals, I woke up feeling terrible.  I stopped by Coach’s office, as he was about to head to a coach’s clinic in Houston, and he advised me to take the day off.  I went a step further and stopped by Student Health.  That evening, as I sat down on my bed after a good cry, I had a phone call to make. “Coach, it’s Olivia.  I’ve got mono.”  While completely devastating at the time, God had a much bigger plan for this illness, too.  It took me the whole spring to really get back, and we decided to redshirt and come back for a fifth year.  However, because ‘my plan’ had been that I’d be done competing, I already had a full-time audit internship planned in Minneapolis for the summer, which meant a very full, but productive, summer.

I returned to MU in the fall confident of two things:  1) with all the 75-85 mile weeks I’d have under my belt by track, I was sure to have a huge year, and 2) the corporate world did not fit me.  For one reason or another, though, by the time track rolled around, my legs were not ready to go. I eeked out a 3k PR, but after that, struggled to even approach the 5-minute barrier in the mile.  My outdoor campaign was also a major disappointment.  While I struggled to understand the athletic side of ‘my plan’, academics were a bit clearer.

After speaking with several professors at Marquette the fall of my fifth year, I had decided to pursue

Olivia Johnson-Okoboji-Marquette

Olivia Johnson-Okoboji-Marquette
©Darren Miller

a PhD in accounting.  I applied to eight schools, and the first to interview me was the University of Iowa.  After a busy day, my final appointment was with the PhD coordinator, Renea.  Before getting down to business, we did a bit of chit-chatting, and I mentioned that I ran track at MU.  “Oh, my husband and I love track.  He gets to do the announcing for several meets around the country,” Renea replied. It didn’t take me long to figure out her husband was the voice of Iowa track & field that I’d heard so many times at the high school state meet and at the Drake Relays.  As we continued to talk track, it also became apparent that we shared another commonality:  our faith. As I had struggled through my fifth year of eligibility, one thing that had become very clear for me was how important it was to find a PhD program with people I could connect with on a deeper level, as I knew the next five years weren’t going to be easy.  Numerous aspects about Iowa felt right, and my talk with Renea helped to seal the deal.  This fall, I officially became a Hawkeye, and while my collegiate eligibility is over, it has become apparent in the last five months that God still has a plan for my running career.  The difference is, this time, other than my 5:44 a.m. alarm and pre-run coffee, I don’t necessarily have a set racing or training plan.  For now, I am enjoying my gift and beginning to trust that His plan is plenty enough, for as Proverbs 21:31 promises:  “the horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.”


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