CHAMPAIGN – You'd never know it to see Janelle Johnson now, but the Purdue senior-to-be got off on the wrong foot in the triple jump.
And we're not talking figuratively.
The summer before her junior year at Champaign Central, Johnson decided to add the event to her track and field repertoire. The IHSA had done the same the previous spring, introducing the girls' triple jump to a mostly unfamiliar prep constituency around these parts.
"No one really knew how to do the triple jump," Johnson said.
So the Maroons long jumper and her father, Argie – her AAU coach in the summer – set out to educate themselves. And with the 1996 Olympics going on that summer, where better to observe triple jump masters at work?
Good plan, but perhaps the Johnsons needed a bigger TV screen. Or closer camera work by the network.
"My dad and I watched and tried to figure out what they were doing," Johnson said. "I guess our eyes kind of deceived us because when I did it (later) that summer, I did it wrong."
Wrong as in committing an infraction. Wrong as in using the improper foot at various points in the event.
"Luckily, it happened in summer track so I had a chance to adjust and get it right for high school," Johnson said.
Right enough that by Johnson's senior season at Central, she recorded the third-best triple jump in the IHSA Class AA state meet. That same year, 1998, she was third in her new specialty at the AAU Junior Olympics.
Purdue's coaching staff took notice, offering Johnson both a partial scholarship and another tutorial in her triple jump education.
"When I came to Purdue, I found out I was doing it all wrong, so I pretty much had to be retaught, recoached," Johnson said. "I had to work on my technique a lot.
"I actually feel like now I got it."
It's doubtful anyone in the Big Ten would argue the point. In May, Johnson set a personal record of 39 feet, 111/2 inches to place fourth in the league's outdoor meet. Three months earlier, she was sixth in the Big Ten indoor meet at 39-13/4.
"She had a very solid year," Purdue coach Ben Paolillo said. "She showed more consistency this year."
There is one aspect of her consistency that gnaws at Johnson: getting stuck in 39-foot territory. Mission No. 1 for her senior season will be joining the 40-foot club.
"I would like to have overcome that 40-foot barrier by now," she said. "Next year's my last year, so I expect to make it a good one."
Making good on her obligations as a student is one goal Johnson had no trouble achieving. She's a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection who compiled a 3.59 grade-point average (on a 4.0 scale) in 2000-01.
"Academics are very important to her," Paolillo said.
Johnson also is the first member of a Purdue women's track and field team to receive an endowed scholarship.
But the academic feat Johnson is proudest of occurred during her sophomore year. After settling on landscape architecture as her major that year, Johnson was named by the department as the outstanding student in her class.
"The competition to get into the program is very stringent," Paolillo said. "And the (job) placement rate is very high once kids graduate."
Actually, the job orders already are coming in. When a cousin built a new house in the Cherry Hills subdivision of Champaign, she asked Johnson to design the landscaping of her front yard. Johnson not only drew up the plans, but grabbed a shovel and dug in with help from her boyfriend and father.
"Landscape architects can get their hands dirty," Johnson said.
Before that, an acquaintance in Purdue's horticulture department asked Johnson to design a garden for her friend.
And the next time Johnson gets over to Cincinnati, her sister plans to put the Purdue triple and long jumper to work on her lawn. And we're not talking about mowing it.
Three years after entering Purdue with the intention of majoring in engineering, Johnson is convinced she's found her calling.
"It wasn't about the grades," Johnson said. "I did very well my first year. I think engineering was too technical for me, not creative enough, and I needed something that had more to do with art.
"I've always liked to draw, and ever since I was little I said, 'I want to be an architect.' "
Others apparently can envision Johnson as a community leader.
Last summer, she was selected to represent Purdue in the NCAA Foundation Leadership Conference. This past school year, Johnson was chosen to serve as a peer advocate in Purdue's Your Choice program. The NCAA-sponsored venture addresses alcohol-related issues on selected campuses.
And next school year, she'll serve as secretary of Mortar Board, a seniors-only group selected for achievements in academics, service and leadership.
Johnson was no stranger to participating in extra-curricular activities at Central: Spanish Club, National Honor Society and, of course, sports.
"But I was never really, really active," she said. "And going into college, I didn't expect to be very active, either.
"But once I got there I felt that it was important to get a hand in on what's going on."
Selection to the NCAA Foundation Leadership Conference was an especially noteworthy addition to Johnson's resume. Each year, schools in Division I, II and III nominate almost 1,000 student-athletes for the program. About 700 don't make the cut.
"It definitely is an honor of the highest kind," Paolillo said.
The group gathers at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., to participate in seminars on leadership skills and team building. A recurring theme was diversity, Johnson said.
"There may be people on your team from overseas and people from different cultures and backgrounds," she said. "And it's important as a team to be able to understand those people and to work with them. That's the best thing I learned."
The Your Choice program is a chance for Johnson and other peer advocates to connect with Purdue students on a specific issue: alcohol use and abuse.
"We just want them to be responsible and aware," she said.
Backed by a three-year grant from the NCAA, Your Choice provides students with information about and alternatives to drinking. Johnson said events arranged by her group include dances with live music and playground-style games at Purdue's student recreation center.
"Just different activities to give you a choice between going out and getting drunk," Johnson said.
The group also has printed informational posters, put together a video and staged theatrical skits to get its message out.
"Instead of preaching, we just want to show people we care and that we know they go through these things," Johnson said.
Although Purdue's Your Choice program targets all students, Johnson said freshman are a focus because they can be particularly vulnerable while living away from home for the first time.
"I know a lot of freshmen sometimes come in and think (drinking is) the thing to do on campus," she said. "(Your Choice) gives them statistics that that's not really what goes on most of the time."
It's programs like these that give Johnson pause to think, too. In her case, it's about the role she's assumed on her campus. And about the opportunities she's had to make an impact beyond the classroom and the track.
"I truly feel that I'm blessed," Johnson said. "I really didn't expect all of this, but I'm glad. I'm glad that I'm doing something with my college career other than earning a degree."
THE JOHNSON FILE
– Seventh in triple jump and long jump in 1997 IHSA Class AA state track and field meet
– Third in triple jump and eighth in long jump in 1998 IHSA Class AA state meet
– Named No. 1 female athlete in News-Gazette's 1998 Prep Year in Review
– Third in triple jump in 1998 Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics
– Fifth in triple jump in 1999 Big Ten outdoor meet
– Named top sophomore student in Purdue's Landscape Architecture Department for 1999-2000
– Participated in invitation-only NCAA Foundation Leadership Conference in 2000
– Peer advocate for NCAA-sponsored Your Choice program on Purdue campus for 2000-01
– Sixth in triple jump for team champion Purdue in 2001 Big Ten indoor meet
– Set personal record with 39-foot, 111/2-inch leap while placing fourth in 2001 Big Ten outdoor meet
– Tied for fifth on all-time Purdue list in outdoor triple jump
– Selected to Purdue's senior-only Mortarboard Honor Society; will serve as secretary during 2001-02