By Christopher Hunt
LAKE SUCCESS, N.Y. – Ahtyana Johnson will never run another race for Benjamin Cardozo. But that doesn’t mean that she’ll never run another race.
Johnson still follows her team. She still checks races results and wonders how a race would have been different is she had her spikes on. The difference this time was she talked about it while she rode a stationary bike, mindlessly watching a television show with no sound at a gym in Long Island.
Johnson missed her entire senior campaign after being diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare blood disorder, in September. When the news spread, one of the worst parts for Johnson was other people’s reactions. Johnson said “people thought I was going to die.”
It says a lot of Johnson, who was one of the best quarter-milers in the country last year. Three months ago Johnson was being home-schooled and effectively quarantined. Her blood platelet count became more important than her 200-meter splits.
The senior took a major step forward when she started back doing light workouts two weeks ago. She returned to school Feb. 1 and early this month she signed an athletic scholarship offer to the University of South Carolina.
Johnson hopes to start jogging again next month but said her teammates were already asking if she could be back for Penn Relays this weekend.
“I don’t think that one is going to happen,” she said.
But if you listen to Johnson, or her father Gus, it sounds like Johnson is shaking off a strained hamstring or a battle with nagging case of tendonitis. But that’s been her mentality for months even while she spent the first few months receiving blood transfusions.
It started in the summer. Gus Johnson assured that his daughter was in the best shape of her life. She spent her summer preparing to make push from a strong contender into the royal circle of the nation’s elite sprinters. She beefed up her training regime and worked with a personal trainer.
But then she started feeling dizzy and discovered a mysterious bruise on her foot. Then on her ankle. Then her shin. She could barely make it through a workout without feeling faint. Johnson thought it was the workload.
Aplastic anemia is a condition in which one’s bone marrow doesn’t produce enough new cells to replenish blood cells. Her father said that when Ahtyana walked into the hospital, her cell counts were so low that the doctors were amazed she wasn’t carried in on a stretcher.
Low blood cell counts meant that Johnson became acutely vulnerable to disease. Suddenly a tray full of hand sanitizers greeted guests at her home’s front door people needed to be aware of touching her.
Johnson went from dance classes and track meets to long hours in front of the television and few more hours learning how to knit. But Johnson didn’t just sit down either. She helped organize a bone marrow drive in Queens in December and wants to continue raising awareness to the lack of registered bone marrow donors in the African-American community.
Johnson never thought she wouldn’t return to the track. She pushed her college visits back to the spring. But many of the calls stopped coming. Johnson didn’t have much of a chance to narrow her choices. She made visits to South Carolina and USC, where former teammate Dalilah Muhammad is a junior and among the top 400-meter hurdlers in the country.
“Coach (Curtis) Frye was the only one that still offered me something,” Johnson said of South Carolina’s famed head coach. “He actually showed that he cared. A lot of schools stopped calling when I got sick.”
Johnson has been realistic. She expected that coaches would shy away from an athlete missing her senior year with a blood disorder that barely allows her to leave the house, let alone handle a sprint workout.
“You don’t really have to look out for someone if you don’t want to,” Johnson said. “These colleges, they are going to be about winning and they want the best person, the fastest athlete. It says a lot that he took me because I’m going to be behind.”
But Johnson said that she built a relationship with Fyre, one where she feels secure worrying about her health before her athletic career. She hopes to suit up for the Gamecocks next year.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Johnson said. “I think if all this didn’t happen I’m not sure where I would be. It was like the decision was made for me. It’s kind of my only choice. But I like the choice that I made.”
Riding the stationary bike is just the beginning for Johnson. She made time for some core work at the gym and even some laps of high-knees in the pool. It was like she was rehabbing a bum knee. She wasn’t going to spend any time thinking she wouldn’t be back at 100 percent.
“Once I get out (to South Carolina), I’m going to work extra hard,” she said. “I’m guess when we go to meets, when I see those schools that didn’t want me, I can put it in their face a little.”