Professional triathlete Kristi Johnson, 31, was unable to compete in Ironman Arizona this past month but will be heading into next year’s season with unwavering fortitude and a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Arizona State University.
Johnson, an Arizona native who lives in Ahwatukee Foothills, has already faced a lot of challenges in her professional career, including cancer.
She was diagnosed with cervical cancer twice in her life and underwent surgery and treatment the first time in her early 20’s.
“It was a very hard blow the second time around and took quite some time to both accept and physically recover from,” Johnson said. “The hardest part… watching my parents, as I told them. The next hardest part… recovering and getting back into racing. My immune system was shot for much of 2011 and I had to work harder than I ever had to to do well, which is why earning my pro card in late September, against all odds, was such a highlight in my career.”
Johnson was diagnosed a few days before Christmas in 2010 and didn’t share the news with her family until after the holidays. She said, “The next day I went out for a run, thinking maybe if I could just run far enough and fast enough I could make it go away. I ended up stopped on a trail in the middle of the desert, unable to catch my breath, sobbing, praying. It was my acceptance and what I needed. I picked myself up, ran home, had surgery the next week, and never looked back.”
How it all began
Running has been a familiar part of Johnson’s life. She started running at a young age with her father, who left the house for a run every weekend. When Johnson first began, her father would run around her in circles and she vowed to herself that she would one day run circles around him.
As she got older, Johnson would run in the desert behind her parent’s home until she was ready to collapse. Through the arduous experience of running on different trails, getting lost and finding her way home, she learned to enjoy nature, her feet hitting the ground, the peace and quiet, and the sense of accomplishment that running offered.
Johnson pushed herself to the limits and embraced pain and discomfort. When she was in junior high, students would run a mile every Friday and the first time she did it, she ran a 5:30 time and beat all the boys. She decided she wanted to beat them every time.
And beat them she has. Johnson earned her professional triathlete status at the 2011 Nickel City Triathlon in Buffalo, N.Y., finishing third overall. According to her website, kristiontherun.com, Johnson has been a member of Team USA since 2009 and finished 15th in the 2009 Triathlon World Championships at Australia.
Before that she raced cross country and track in college where she won the national title in the Steeple chase and was racing marathons competitively. She was invited to race in a triathlon by a local team during college and entered the Tempe International Triathlon as her first race despite borrowing a bike that was too large for her. She placed in her age group and overall at that race before moving onto her second race where she placed at the SOMA half triathlon.
Not taking any baby steps, Johnson did a full distance Ironman for her third triathlon and finished fifth in her age group.
Johnson’s success has grown exponentially since then, having earned the pro card in Buffalo and less than a year later being invited to compete in the 2012 Olympic Trials in San Diego. For her, it was a dream come true despite not qualifying and she hopes to represent the U.S. in the 2016 Olympics.
“There are two things you can do for your country. You can fight for freedom or you can go to the Olympics. The Olympics are where the best of the best go to compete for the honor of their country every two to four years. I want to represent my country in that way. I want to be someone that others look up to in the sport of triathlon. I have been on Team USA since 2009 and that just seems like the next step.”
One individual who is helping her to reach that goal is Ryan Riell, founder and head coach of Break Through Multisport and Break Through Elite Racing. Riell didn’t serve his country in the Olympics, but he did serve in the U.S. Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom for four years.
Riell, 35, is a nationally recognized and certified triathlon coach who has the only USAT Youth/Junior High Performance Team and Development Program in Arizona. Riell takes a scientific approach to his coaching methods with his two masters’ degrees; he evaluates each athlete as an individual.
Johnson was contacted by Riell through Facebook and asked her about her degree in exercise physiology from ASU. After she was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and had undergone surgery, she decided that Riell was her best bet as a local coach who could help her achieve her dream.
Even though she blew Riell off for about two months, they met up to do some tests. Riell agreed to train her full time and Johnson had very good results on the tests even though she was going through cancer treatment at the time (unknown by Riell).
“I was impressed with her ability and even more so by her determination to succeed. She made some really large improvements in her ability once she recovered fully from all the treatment, which took six to seven months,” Riell said. “She had big goals, potential and the willingness to do the work.”
Reaching her goal
“I have seen improvements in my overall fitness and performance since starting work with Ryan. I am much stronger physically and mentally. I used to put in very long hours training and saw good, but not stellar, results. Ryan put together a schedule that was far less exhausting but still achieved the same and better results. I was no longer spinning my wheels and getting nowhere. Ryan understands the science behind my training and how to put together a plan that will allow me to achieve and sometimes supersede my goals. Without his expert advice and coaching I would not have made that trials race, I would likely not have earned my pro card in 2010 and I would not be working with the team of professionals (my coaching and support staff) I am today.”
Johnson did not compete in Ironman Arizona because she was focused mostly on Olympic distance events in preparation for the Olympic trials, and she was racing that distance as an ambassador for the Toyota Cup Series.
She discussed racing SOMA and Ironman Arizona with Riell, but was hindered when she crashed in Chicago last August and cracked her hip, which she didn’t discover was cracked until weeks later when the pain and discomfort was still intense and she visited the ER and was told the news. As a result, she and Riell decided that it was best to end the season and focus on recovery and preparation for 2013.
Johnson is not only a beneficiary of Riell’s coaching; she also works alongside him as an assistant coach for Break Through Elite Racing U25/Elite division (collegiate athletes). Last year she was an assistant coach for ASU’s triathlon team. Even though triathlons are an individual sport, Johnson tries to encourage every individual on the teams and leads by example on how to support one another.
Another outlet that she uses to encourage kids is professional modeling. Johnson has modeled for several different athletic products and shoots and enjoys doing it to encourage kids to be fit and healthy.
But life isn’t all running, swimming, cycling, and modeling for Johnson. She was in school with a goal to be a doctor, but was offered a job working for a local construction company in its estimating department. She found out that she was really proficient at designing gardens, commercial facilities, and yards, and went to graduate school for something she loves, outdoors and nature.
Johnson said her training clears her head and she is more efficient with less time to procrastinate because she has so much to keep her busy with school.
Despite having a thesis for her degree, projects to finish, classes to attend, and papers to write, Johnson trains 20 to 30 hours a week with two to three workouts per day.
“My academic career is coming to a close after the master’s degree is complete. I enjoy learning and will continue to learn about new and advancing opportunities in my profession. I will at some point work as an architect, but for now I will continue to follow the triathlon career. Outside of that, I would like to start a family at some point. I am working on a nonprofit foundation in the initial stages. I will be focused on the foundation for the foreseeable future.”
Johnson’s next big race will be the White Tanks Xterra Trail Run on Jan. 6, 2013, and her next triathlon will be in April where she will be in the 70.3 series in Galveston, Texas.
• Aaron Rop is a junior at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.