As an Indiana State junior in 2012, Felisha Johnson never threw the shot farther than 57 feet. That is good for college but outside the top 50 in the world.
Top three? Four years later?
Larry Judge, one of the top coaches in the throws, says: Why not?
“I think she can contend for a medal,” he said.
That would be a surprise, but perhaps no more so than qualifying for the Rio Olympics. Johnson survived the deepest domestic competition ever to finish third at the U.S. trials – seven women exceeded 60 feet – and became the Sycamores’ first U.S. Olympian in track and field. She defeated two of the three women who represented Team USA in 2012.
Olympic qualifying in the shot is Friday morning, when the field will be reduced to 12 for finals that night.
Johnson, 27, was an Indiana All-Star for Lawrence North in basketball and a two-time state champion in the shot. She focused on track after high school and turned it into a post-college career.
She has subsisted as a full-time athlete via a Nike contract and a $6,000 stipend from USA Track & Field. She earned an additional $6,000 by finishing third at the Olympic Trials.
“It may not make me a lot of money, but I love the sport,” she said. “I love throwing. And it beats a regular 9-to-5.”
She lives in a Terre Haute apartment and describes a typical day: up at 6 a.m., practice at 8, relax, another practice at 2 or 3 p.m. Maybe weightlifting in between or afterward.
“That’s my day,” she said.
It was enough to propel her into the world’s top 15 in 2014 and 2015, but not enough to be an Olympic medalist. So a year ago, she spent two months at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., improving what she called “terrible” form.
She needed technique to catch up to her strength. She has two NCAA titles and one national championship in the 20-pound weight throw, an indoor event rewarding power more than finesse. As a 6-1 post player — and now 280 pounds — she was as imposing as you would suspect in basketball.
“Teams, they’d just be hanging all over her,” said Jodie Whitaker, who coached her at Lawrence North. “You get the ball to her, she’s going to put the ball in the basket.”
Judge is a Ball State kinesiology professor whose 18 years in college coaching included a stop at Indiana State, his alma mater. He spent a sabbatical at the training center, allowing more time to tutor Johnson. While apart, the coach communicated via Facetime. Judge called the shot putter a “soft-spoken giant” whose discipline matches her talent.
In basketball, Johnson’s demeanor never changed, even when triple-teamed. Such poise was tested at the Olympic Trials because it was “nerve-wracking,” she said, to survive as the last of eight finalists. Then, in the fifth of six rounds, her throw of 63 feet, 1¼ inches propelled her from seventh to first.
“It wasn’t unexpected to me because she’s been throwing like that in practice,” Judge said.
Nor was it unexpected for Connie Price-Smith, head coach of the U.S. women’s team. Price-Smith, a three-time Olympic shot putter who was fifth at Atlanta in 1996, formerly coached at Southern Illinois and saw Johnson in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Still, Price-Smith said, “For her to get in there and do it at that time was very exceptional.”
Judge theorized there was more pressure at the trials than there will be at the Olympics. Johnson ranks No. 8 in the world, so she would have to unleash the throw of a lifetime to get on the podium.
That is how she got to Rio in the first place.
“I just felt something,” she said, “and it clicked.”
Call IndyStar reporter David Woods at (317) 444-6195. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.