Ella Johnson gave thought to the risk when she decided to close out her senior year at Glenwood Springs High School playing soccer and making a bid for another shot at a 4A state track meet podium finish.
Johnson, who was recruited last fall to run track and cross country for the Air Force Academy, was right on track in late April, having qualified to race in the 3200 meters and as a member of the Lady Demons’ 4×800 relay team at the May 19-21 Colorado High School Track and Field Championships.
She would have been a top contender, having placed fourth at state in the 3200 her junior year and helping that year’s 4×800 relay team to a third-place medal.
Johnson was just returning from a backpacking trip with her outdoor education class on April 26, when she made the decision to meet up with her dad, Erik Johnson, in Fruita so they could drive to a soccer game in Montrose that had major playoff implications.
“I wasn’t even supposed to play,” she recalls. “But we made it just before halftime, and I got into the game.”
With about 2 minutes left to play, Johnson was dribbling the ball downfield when it rolled a little too far in front of her.
“I stepped with my left leg to try to maintain control, and my knee hyperextended,” she said.
An MRI a couple of days later confirmed her worst fear — a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
“I was a little bit worried, just with the craziness of the schedule, and also the risk of being injured,” Johnson said of her decision to continue as a dual-sport athlete, which she had done in her previous spring seasons at GSHS.
“When I talked to my coach at the Air Force Academy, he said that I’ll never get another chance to play soccer again, and so he encouraged it,” she said. “And I wasn’t ready to let it go yet, either. So I was happy that I got to play one last time.”
She navigated having to miss track practices by running and training on her own so she could stay in top track form.
When she hurt her knee, her immediate thought was not being able to go to the Air Force Academy as planned, where she had already been accepted. The injury was an automatic medical disqualification for her cross country and track commitment, at least for the coming year, so she decided to wait a year and reapply for admission to the military academy starting in 2023-24.
“When it all began to settle in, that’s when I was worried that my soccer team wouldn’t be able to make it to the playoffs, and that I wouldn’t be able to end my soccer career on a good note, and that I wouldn’t get to go to state for track,” she said. “That was a bummer, but long term it was more about the future.”
Johnson is now planning to take a part-time load of online classes through Brigham Young University so she gets a jump on her academic credits but doesn’t lose a year of athletics eligibility, while keeping an eye toward being readmitted to the AFA.
She’s also undergoing intensive physical therapy so she can resume her commitment to the Falcons cross country and track teams.
In the meantime, she approached GSHS head cross country coach Aidan Goldie about helping to coach the Demons this fall and was added to the roster of assistant coaches.
“I thought it would be a good way to stay involved,” Johnson said. “My dad has been a soccer coach since I was little, so coaching has been in the family, and I always thought I would want to do it at some point. So this is just a little introduction to that.”
Goldie was happy to have her continue as part of the team.
“Even when I was coaching Ella, she was already like the fourth coach on our team just based on her leadership skills and the respect she had among her teammates,” Goldie said.
Since she’s not too far removed from her own preps experience, she figures she may have some advice for those who might want to consider running in college — and whether it’s a good idea to double-up with two sports in a season.
“I would still do it over again,” Johnson said. “I just love both sports too much to not do them both.
“But it is critical that (student-athletes) have good time management and know that your injury risk might increase because you’re doing a lot of training all the time. A lot of it is just making sure that you’re recovering properly and doing all that you can to prevent any injuries from coming up.”
Goldie agreed with that approach.
“From a coaches’ perspective, I always look at it as I’m coaching the human first, the student second and the runner third,” he said. “Whatever makes them happiest; I just want to be able to support their goals and dreams the best I can.”
Johnson said she also looks forward to coaching some of the athletes she helped mentor the past few seasons as a teammate.
Practices for most fall sports officially began this week, as school is set to start Aug. 17 for the Roaring Fork Schools. The Demons boys and girls cross country teams open the season at the Grand Junction Central Warrior Invitational on Aug. 20.
The Glenwood Demon XC Invitational also returns this season, set for Sept. 17 at the CMC-Spring Valley Gates Soccer Fields complex. And Glenwood Springs is due to host the 4A Regionals on Oct. 20 at a location to be determined.