AV track athletes listen to the voice of experience
2008 Olympian back at her alma mater as assistant coach
London in the summer sounds enticing, but Shani Marks Johnson said she was perfectly happy with what she was doing last week – coaching track and field athletes at her high school alma mater.
“I don’t know if I could coach anywhere else,” said Marks Johnson, a prep track and field star at Apple Valley and 2008 U.S. Olympian in the women’s triple jump. “It would be very difficult for me to coach at any other high school. So many of the coaches who worked with me when I was a student here, they’re still here.”
In 1998, she closed her high school career with a state championship in the long jump. Ten years later she was on the sport’s biggest stage at the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Marks Johnson finished first in the triple jump at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials with a personal-best 47 feet, 2 1/4 inches to qualify for Beijing, where she did not advance to the finals.
“I put so much energy into trying to make the (Olympic) team that once the Trials were over, the stress was off,” said Marks Johnson, who finished fourth in the 2004 U.S. Trials. “I put so much time and dedication into it that the thing I remember most is the journey to the Olympics, rather than the actual Olympics. Does that make sense?”
When she decided not to make another Olympic attempt – this year’s Summer Games will be in London starting in late July – Marks Johnson said she was at peace with it.
She competed in 2009 before moving to the next phase of her life – motherhood and coaching. Marks Johnson and her husband Ron, a former University of Minnesota football player, have a 1-year-old daughter. She also is involved in several coaching ventures, on her own and with several organizations. She’s a coach with Burnsville-based Fuzion Athletics (whose owner, Jamie Steffen, is the AVHS pole vaulting coach) and the REAL (Rosemount, Eagan, Apple Valley, Lakeville) youth track and field program.
She said she didn’t picture herself coaching someday while still competing in high school.
“No, not at all,” said Marks Johnson, who went on to star at the University of Minnesota. “But I started working as a volunteer assistant coach at the ‘U.’ I majored in public relations, then got a master’s in applied kinesiology. When I was studying for my master’s, I could see that it was leading me into coaching.”
Told that Marks Johnson at one point had no interest in coaching, Apple Valley girls head coach Geri Dirth said, “Really? Well, I think that comes later. I saw that with my two sons. One is studying to be a teacher and coach. The other goes to (the University of) St. Thomas, and all he’s talking about is coaching this summer.”
Marks Johnson also finished second in women’s triple jump at the 2003 NCAA Division I championships and has five USA Track and Field indoor and outdoor titles. At AVHS, she coaches boys and girls long and triple jumpers.
She laughed when asked if the athletes she coaches are any more likely to pay attention to her based on her resume.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “I think they have to pay attention no matter who the coach is.”
Marks Johnson, 31, said she has noticed Dirth’s influence in her own coaching style.
“Anybody who knows Geri knows she wants her girls to be good athletes and good people,” she said. “She wants them to be good students, and she wants them to have fun doing track and field.”
Marks Johnson didn’t do the triple jump in high school and came to the event late in her college career. Doing so would have forced the Eagles to pull her from another event where she could score big points. She also was a standout sprinter and hurdler.
Apple Valley teams competed in the South Suburban Conference championships this week (the finals were in progress when this edition went to press). They will be in the Section 3AA meet Tuesday and Thursday of next week at the University of St. Thomas.
One of Marks Johnson’s goals now is to coach an Apple Valley jumper to a state championship. If and when that happens, it figures to be an emotional moment.
“I’ll be boo-hooing, for sure,” she said.