Heart of the Treasure Valley: Through family tragedy, frustration on the track, teen learns what matters

kjones@idahostatesman.comJuly 13, 2014 

  • FACING FEARS

    Tanner Johnson runs in a handful of races in a track meet, plus the long jump and the high jump, but the hardest race of all for him is the 400-meter: once around the track - a quarter-mile. All over in less 50 seconds.

    He says: "It's the worst pain. I can't even describe it to you."

    And it's not just the race itself. There are the hours leading up to the race, full of anxiety, and, in particular, the minute and a half before the race when he steps into the starting blocks.

    And then - everything melts around him.

    "It's sort of an out-of-body experience almost. I think to myself, is this really about to happen? Am I really about to run a quarter-mile, on my toes, full sprint? And it just really doesn't register. But before I can even process it, the gun goes off.

    "And so I'm not really thinking about it. It sort of - sounds weird - but it's almost meditative. (At least until the last 100 meters where your legs feel like cinderblocks and you can't really pick them up and you think you could walk faster than you're running.)

    "But it's bittersweet: the (hard) being the point leading up to the race and the sweet part being that huge rush of endorphins right after the race. I mean, it's the best feeling in the world.

    "It's a feeling of accomplishment. It's almost a really good analogy for life."

    Because, really, the 400 - or any race for that matter, or much of life, when it comes right down to it - is about facing one's fears in all its forms: fear of failure, of disappointing your parents, of the pain in your lungs.

    "Aside from being a testament to physicality, (the 400 is) definitely a mind game, too. You definitely have to have the strength of mind and the ability to push yourself beyond your bounds - beyond the bounds you set in your mind.

    "Like, say, you don't think you can get under 50 seconds in the 400. That's not a physical limitation, that's a mental limitation. I think the mental limitations are so much harder to break than the physical ones because they're so binding.

    "Your mind has such extraordinary power to convince your body what it can and cannot do. But once you have power over that, I mean everything is pretty much limitless."

He accidentally discovered running when he was a freshman. And, it turns out, he's quite good at it.

He's good at a lot of sports, but he got a track scholarship to Duke University before the start of his senior year. With that shining in his near future, he gave up both basketball and football to focus on one last glorious season on the high school track.

Somewhere in the district meet, however, between two 400-meter races, the high jump and the long jump - all of which qualified him for state - Tanner Johnson felt a twinge in his foot. He hoped it would go away, but it wasn't to be ignored: He had a stress fracture in his foot and, poof, just like that, his senior year of track was over.

He says: "It wasn't the end of the world, but it felt like it at the time."

He got through state by taking refuge in the accomplishments of his teammates, cheering for them as they competed, and sharing in the success of teamwork.

"Being at state, watching people compete in my event … that just sort of fueled the fire for the future. …

"(And) afterwards, just putting things into perspective. Yeah, this is the end of this season, the end of my high school career unexpectedly like this.

"But I (realized I) have plenty more track meets in the future at Duke; that there are plenty more races to be run, plenty more jumps to be taken. … "

Several weeks after state, Tanner stood in front of the graduating class of Centennial High School to give a valedictorian address about success. It was not the definition that one might think, because the measurement wasn't in dollars and cents and net worth, or, though he didn't mention it, medals at state.

"If you look at a successful business, or a successful high school experience, the gears that keep it running are healthy relationships. …That's what makes a business successful; that's what made my high school experience successful: having people to lean on, having people to talk to."

Relationships are what kept Tanner from diving into depression over missing state: his teammates. That's what clinched his decision about Duke: the sense of camaraderie from his new track team. And relationships are what will propel him into the future.

"I think success is mainly based on people, but stemming from that is also passion and purpose. Those are my ultimate goals in life."

To talk about the importance of relationships with Tanner, though, pretty quickly, one has to talk about his mother.

"She was not a sympathizer. She was an empathizer. And so she was really able to feel with people and not for people. ...

"And when you can connect with people like that, it fueled my self-confidence. Really gave me something to lean back on and allowed me to fight the fear of failure. I was able to step out of my comfort zone because I knew somebody believed in me."

She is the one who modeled the support and love that relationships are built on; that is both her gift to Tanner as well as her legacy. Heidi Johnson died when she was hit by a car while out for her morning run in 2005. Tanner was 9 years old.

"What I've realized in those nine years (since then) is that moms rock. … "

There were dark years for Tanner, numb and withdrawn, until slowly, slowly, he started talking to people he trusted - his dad, his brother, his sister, his grandfather.

"We can't really escape anything; we just have to kind of get through it. …

"(Now) I prefer to look at (her death) in another light as opposed to darkness. I choose to remember her as her happy self and not just feel this (self-pity) that I don't have a mom for the rest of my life. …

"I'm going to focus on how I can live my life like she lived her life: being a friend, being a parent, being the most amazing person I've known."

One summer since then, Tanner was a mentor at a camp for kids at risk for diabetes and obesity (a project of One Stone, a student-run service group).

"That taught me a lot about empathy as well, even though I've never experienced what they go through on a day-to-day basis - I've never really experienced feeling left out or not fitting into the group. But I've experienced other hurdles in my life, like losing my mom, like not being able to compete in track.

"I think all that (stems from how) my mom was able to feel with people, so I wasn't just feeling sorry for them. I was feeling with them. I think that allowed us to develop an even deeper relationship that exponentially increased the outcome of that project."

Tanner formed a similar bond when he helped lead a project about bullying at Fairmont Junior High School with the student-led nonprofit One Stone. Tanner was paired with a boy, a young refugee from Colombia, and the effects were extraordinary - for both of them.

"I felt like I could relate to him through my experience with my mom, and so that really strong sense of empathy … grabbed me and pulled me in to the whole (idea of) service.

"It just got me really excited about connecting with people, and I think that's going to remain a top priority of mine until the day I die."

Losing his mother - maybe that was what brought it all home.

"I was bitter for a really long time. I hated God for taking the best thing in the world from me. …

"But with time, I've just learned to accept that this is how is, maybe this is how it was supposed to be, and this is how I was maybe intended to live. Maybe this is a struggle I was supposed to go with.

"I know I've gotten stronger from it; I know I've been more … more passionate than ever to make something of this world and to live like my mom lived."

Tanner expects great things of himself - and the world. But he's perceptive enough to know that not every significant act needs to be splashy.

"I fear not being able to make a mark on the world; not leaving the world better than I found it. But I think ordinary actions can have really extraordinary effects and I think even genuine, small, random acts of kindness can have extraordinary effects on people's lives. …

"You can see how big the ripple effect is, once it gets going, once the rock hits the pond. … I think that can really change the aura of the community. The world, hopefully."

What he does in the world, he isn't sure about yet - the Peace Corps, another volunteer agency, or some as-yet undiscovered role.

"I haven't found my purpose in life, but I know it's going to come back to doing something for other people."

And when he goes off to Duke in August, he's not exactly sure what he'll study.

"I have no clue. No idea. But I'm OK with that. … I like science, but for all I know, I could be a lit major. … I think most people fear the uncertain. I fear it, but I'm excited about it, too. …

"I don't want to set limitations for myself. I want to achieve all I can and break through those limitations I set on myself. Mentally - and physically, if we're talking about track.

"I know people have extraordinary capacities to do extraordinary things, and I'm just not going to settle for being ordinary."

Know someone living "from the heart"? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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