The women’s 1500-meter scene in the U.S. got a shakeup on June 25, when Sinclaire Johnson won the national title in 4:03.29.
It wasn’t so much that Johnson won—after all, her 3:58.85 at the Prefontaine Classic over Memorial Day weekend showed she could mix it up with the world’s best. She was fourth in that race, in a field that had 10 Olympians.
But Johnson’s margin of victory—1.33 seconds—showed that she’s on a new level this year.
Cory McGee was second in 4:04.52, and Elle St. Pierre was third in 4:05.14. Both McGee and St. Pierre were 2021 Olympians, and St. Pierre, who rarely loses against domestic competition, was largely seen as the prerace favorite.
Karissa Schweizer and Heather MacLean, who also represented the U.S. at the Games last year, were fourth and fifth.
Johnson, 24, attributes her breakout year to the peace she’s feeling in her life and training situation.
“I am just happy, honestly,” she said after the race. “I don’t even know if it’s contentment. I don’t know what exactly it is, but I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. I feel happy off the track, regardless of how I run on the track. That is a huge difference from last year. I feel like myself, I’m confident, I’m just loving what I’m doing right now.”
She is based in Portland and trains with the Union Athletics Club, under coach Pete Julian. After graduating from Oklahoma State University, where she was the 2019 NCAA champion in the 1500 meters, she was with the Bowerman Track Club for a few months, before she realized the high-mileage system wasn’t for her. She made the switch to the cross-town team.
“I drank the Kool-Aid just enough to know what it’s like,” she said after the Prefontaine Classic, of her few months with Bowerman. “Great program. They’ve clearly had fantastic athletes come out of it. It wasn’t the right fit for me. I came from college and high school of being like 45–50 miles a week. The average woman on Bowerman runs like 85. Too much volume for me, I got hurt. I got tired.”
She was 12th of 13 runners in the final at the Olympic Trials last year.
A stress fracture in her hip sidelined her for the first few months she was with Union Athletics Club, but she tried as best she could to integrate herself with her new team immediately.
“She was just cross training, and she would come to every practice and watch our workout,” said marathoner Jordan Hasay, who trains with Julian’s group. “When you’re injured, that can be hard to do, but I really respected that of her immediately. I thought that was really nice of her.”
Hasay and Johnson did one workout together during the early days of Johnson’s return to training. They were supposed to run 10 x 200 meters in 33 seconds. Hasay needed to get out hard and run them evenly or else Johnson would blast past her in the second half.
“I can’t shift like she can,” Hasay said. “I got to see that, see her changing gears. It was cool being able to do those workouts with her. If she’s there with 200 to go, she’s going to win. She’s got that shift.”
That shift was what won her the U.S. title. And it’s something that they practice frequently, Julian said.
“Sometimes you have to shift slower, not just shifting faster,” he said. “Any time you watch these championship races, there are these moves that are made, but they’re never really for real. You have to be okay with all of the sudden hitting the brakes, too.”
The national championship race went out very slowly—the field of 12 jogged a first lap of 72 seconds, before St. Pierre moved to the front and quickened the pace. She was a little miffed that she had to be the one to do that.
“It was definitely disappointing that nobody wanted to take it, it’s kind of how it goes lately,” St. Pierre said. “I feel like people always expect me to take it, and so I kinda wish other people would do a little bit of the work. I’m not going to lie. But I mean that in the nicest way possible.”
That’s one of the occupational hazards that comes with being the one everyone is keying off of in the field. Johnson used it to her advantage, sticking in fourth through 1200 meters. McGee put in a hard move on the backstretch of the bell lap, moving in front. Johnson followed, and then with 200 to go she had another gear. She ran her last 300 meters in 43.83 seconds.
“That’s pretty amazing,” Julian said. “That’s kind of bone crushing. It just takes the breath out of people.”
Johnson attributed her last lap to a newfound strength. “I feel so much more powerful now,” she said. “I can get to that last lap feeling like I have two, three, even four more gears. I feel like that’s probably the biggest change from last year.”
Make no mistake: She still puts in 13- to 14-mile long runs. She still does the strength work, like mile repeats, Julian said. But some things can’t be taught.
“These athletes have some gifts that they’re born with,” he said. “How they can efficiently just sort of float away, right? The coaching side is just getting them confident with that, getting them fit enough so they can be there to use that stuff.”
Johnson is all of those things: fit, fast, and confident. When asked if she could medal at the World Championships in July, she didn’t hesitate.
“I think I can,” she said. “Yeah. We’ll see how it goes. I definitely think that’s in my wheelhouse, so I’m super excited.”