Notre Dame thrower Aja Johnson continues to ‘slay dragons’ after remarkable junior season

Notre Dame thrower Aja Johnson continues to ‘slay dragons’ after remarkable junior season

SHERMAN OAKS — White folding chairs in neat rows turn their attention toward a stage assembled on the football field for Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony.

The stadium is empty on a Friday morning aside from a maintenance worker hosing down the bleachers, Notre Dame throws coach Nick Garcia and thrower Aja Johnson, who is launching discus after discus behind the graduation day setup.

“Knowing that I can do more and there’s more for me to do that I haven’t finished — that really motivates me,” Johnson said.

While most students are catching up on rest and kicking off their summer breaks, Johnson is training for the upcoming Nike Outdoor Nationals alone after a remarkable junior season of high school track and field.

Her highlights included winning the CIF Southern Section Finals, CIF-SS Masters Meet and CIF State championships in discus and won the CIF-SS finals, CIF-SS Masters Meet, then came in second at state in shot put.

All are feats especially remarkable considering her height.

Johnson says she’s 5-foot-4, but Garcia goes with 5-foot-3.

“The more she throws, the shorter she gets,” Garcia jokes.

That hasn’t stopped her from slinging a personal-best 158 feet, 10 inches in discus and 46-10 in shot put. Those distances rank 14th and 18th in the country, respectively.

“Her overall athleticism is what sets her apart,” Garcia, who was also considered a “short” thrower, said. “You get her up on the podium and the people to the right and the left of her are taller than she is. She’s got a lot of horsepower, and that helps.”

Aja Johnson of Notre Dame competes in the Women’s Discus Throw Invitational during the Arcadia Invitational track and field meet at Arcadia High School in Arcadia on Saturday, April 8, 2023. (Photo by Libby Cline Birmingham, Contributing Photographer)

Johnson first learned to throw a discus when she was 8 years old. She also got into running events and high jump and gymnastics, which have all contributed to her success as a thrower. She ran a 200-meter race last season and even competed in high jump this season.

Discus and shot put took priority for her because of her success and the fun she had doing the events.

“How many people do you hear get to throw a metal ball for sport?” she said.

Throwing is a rotational sport, just like softball or baseball or being a quarterback. Johnson’s footwork on her spin was quick and borderline acrobatic during her Friday training at Notre Dame. Her feet took quick, light steps to dictate the direction of her throw as her upper body twisted.

“I did gymnastics when I was younger and that gets you so strong with the workouts, just the intensity,” Johnson said. “Even high jump, just having different moves to help me with the spin. I feel like you understand technique better if your body is more diverse in what it is accustomed to.”

Johnson takes on a lot of activities at school, too, as a member of ASB, the Black Student Union, the dance team and the cheerleading team. Now that school is over, though, Johnson is free to concentrate just on her throwing.

She’s training twice a day now on a schedule carefully designed by Garcia to maintain peak form after the rigorous, long meet schedule of Southern California high school track and field.

“If you falter in any of those meets, you’re eliminated,” Garcia said. “We hit peak form a little while ago and we held that peak form. Now it’s getting a little too long to hold that peak form so we started a whole new developmental cycle.”

During the season, she used heavier throwing implements to focus on strength and lighter ones for speed — and to mimic a competition setting in which she has more adrenaline. On Friday, she trained and lifted weights at 70% of her max to focus on speed and powered through exercises that mimicked the motions of throwing.

Garcia gives selective feedback at this point in the season as to not overwhelm Johnson, who is settled into her technique and driven to win at Nike Nationals in Eugene, Oregon, on June 12-15.

Garcia has dubbed her a “dragon slayer” because of her competitive mindset.

“I did really want a second win (in shot put at state), but it just wasn’t in the cards for me at that meet,” Johnson said. “So I’m going to nationals and I’m going to be competing there. I’ll have another chance to show what I have.”

Aside from Garcia’s seldom instruction and the tapping of Johnson’s shoes on the metal throwing circle, the Notre Dame football stadium as well as the weight room are silent and peaceful after bustling with student-athletes throughout the school year.

Johnson presses on, ready for the next dragon to slay.

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