FORT COLLINS, Colo.— Sharde Johnson ’22 sprints forward, launches powerfully off the ground, and arches backward over the high jump bar. She clears it with so much room to spare she seems to float in the air, defying gravity for a long moment, before tumbling back down to earth.
Johnson, Colby Athletics’ high jump national champion at the 2021 National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division III outdoor track and field championships, makes it look easy.
But make no mistake, the athlete—who in October was named one of the top 30 honorees for the 2022 NCAA Woman of the Year award—doesn’t rest on her laurels. High jumping is a sport that combines physical talent with mental toughness, and she works hard to keep progressing on both fronts. She also strives to maintain a positive attitude and outlook, something that she credits to her ability to get up and try again when she struggles to make it over the bar.
“Over the years, I’ve been really proud of the intention that I’ve been able to bring to competing and training. Just being really purposeful with my movements and really just trying to understand the event as best as I can,” Johnson, 22, said. “I feel like the areas where I’m improving, a lot of it is just mental.”
‘She deserves to be here’
CSU, a division I school that competes in the Mountain West Conference, recruited Johnson to compete on the track and field team. Johnson, a psychology major at Colby, is pursuing a master’s in sports management at CSU. She is one of three members of the Class of 2022 with five years of NCAA eligibility because they were unable to compete in all their seasons because of the Covid pandemic. The others are Cabot Maher ’22, a baseball player at Villanova University, and Jack Rickards ’22, a lacrosse player at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Johnson was selected from among 156 student-athletes nominated for the NCAA award, which honors athletic excellence, academic achievement, community service, and leadership. It is one of the highest awards given by the NCAA, and she was one of only two students chosen from the New England Small College Athletic Conference. Though she is not among the finalists for the award, which will be announced in January in San Antonio, she said she was excited to be considered. “I’m proud to be among such an accomplished field of nominees,” she said.
For Johnson, competing at a higher level this coming year will allow her to see how far she can go, according to Assistant Coach Maria Creech, the CSU recruiting coordinator and jumping coach.
“It’s been a super-great experience for her because she can utilize her fifth year of eligibility and level up,” Creech said. “Her leadership was one of the reasons we wanted her here and brought her in. And her ability to rise above and become a competitor, an academic, and just an all-around incredible human. Since she got here, we have just been so overjoyed that she’s part of our team. She definitely deserves to be here.”
‘It felt good’
Johnson, from Pine Bush, N.Y., grew up in a family where sports mattered. Her avid sports-fan dad introduced his young daughters to as many sports as possible. “I think that just fed into my love of playing sports in general, as well as just trying new things and being active,” she said.
She started doing track and field in middle school, though at first the high jump wasn’t remotely appealing. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that. I feel like I’m going to hurt myself,’” she said.
But when a coach introduced her to it during her freshman year of high school by asking her to jump over a bungee cord set at a very low height, she changed her mind.
“That was a natural movement for me,” Johnson said. “It felt good.”
She kept on jumping and improving, and by the time she was looking at colleges, track and field coaches were getting in touch. Colby stood out because she was seeking a smaller school where she could have a close relationship with her coaches and teammates and feel comfortable on campus.
“It just felt like a place where you were not going to be just a number. You’d be a person,” she said.
And that’s what she found. At Colby, Johnson excelled both academically and on the track. She majored in psychology and was a two-year co-captain of the track team and student leader with Colby’s African Drumming Ensemble. During some of her free time, she enjoyed sitting by Johnson Pond, one of her favorite places on campus.
“Sitting there when it was sunny and warm—that was always one of my favorite things to do,” she said. “Then there were times when it was frozen over at night, and the stars were beautiful. There are just a lot of great memories.”
Life as a college athlete is not without difficulties, of course. At Colby, Johnson had to balance her time carefully and sometimes make sacrifices because of her sport, including missing some classes because of team travel and skipping studying abroad because of training commitments.
“Because the track and competition schedule was pretty demanding, and classes were also rigorous, just trying to be the best that I could be in both those areas did not leave much time for much else,” she said.
As well, competing at a high level can exact a toll on even the best athlete.
“It’s common to be faced with disappointment when you don’t perform as you hoped to, or if one of your teammates is down and you’re trying to figure out the best way to support them,” she said. “There are a lot of mental challenges in track.”
Her Colby track coaches encouraged her to do something they called “seeking positivity”— eliminating negative self-talk and finding ways to be resilient in hard situations. They also helped her grow in other ways.
“I learned to be confident in my ability,” she said. “Learning in both the academic and the athletic sphere about the importance of confidence, it was like, ‘Oh wow. If I’m confident in my academics and in training and competition, then I can achieve a lot.’”
Her positive outlook helped her make one of the most important jumps of her undergraduate career, at the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track & Field Championships in May 2021 in Greensboro, N.C.
Johnson, the top seed at the meet, had three chances to cleanly jump over the bar.
She jumped and missed on her first try.
She missed on her second.
At that point, Colby Assistant Track and Field Coach Troy Irvine started to sweat while standing on the sideline.
“I’m trying to look like I’m calm, but inside I’m going nuts because if she misses, we came all this way to be the number one seed and just not even make a height,” he said.
The third attempt was different. Johnson jumped it cleanly, propelling her body above the crossbar without knocking it down. But the previous misses had set up a tough situation. Because of the way the high jump is scored, she remained in last place as she and the other competitors worked their way through taller and taller jumps. Even after other jumpers missed all their tries, shrinking the field of competitors from 20 to 15 to 10, Johnson continued to bring up the rear. But she put her head down and kept going, Irvine said.
And when the bar was set at 5’9”, a height that she had last made in competition a year and a half previously, she was ready.
“Everything timed up on that jump. She goes over it. In typical Sharde [pronounced Sha-day] fashion, there isn’t a big celebration moment,” he said. “She jumps over the bar, lands on the mat, and pops right up, stoic.”
If one of the other athletes made the same height, the event would be in play. But one by one, the others all missed, and Johnson was the new national champion.
For Irvine, who had just started coaching at Colby the prior year, it was thrilling.
“People go their whole careers and not get a national champion, as a coach,” he said. “I’m very lucky to have taken a job at Colby and had someone like Sharde to work with.”
The confidence gained from that moment in North Carolina fuels her desire to excel in Fort Collins, where Johnson looks forward to the challenge and possibility of Division I college athletics. In the first track meet of the season, an early-December holiday open meet at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, she placed second with a jump of 5’5”, and she’s eager to keep improving.
“I really just want to make the most of my time in this program and to help the team in every way that I can,” she said.
She’s also planning to stay in the moment as much as she can, even while competing against other high-level athletes.
“Let me just focus on what I want to achieve, and good will come out of that,” Johnson said.
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