The Extra Mile

Coronado High Athletic Trainer—and triathlete—Sonja Johnson gives the students in her care a role model of success.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 13.2, March 2003,

When Coronado (Calif.) High School lost its last athletic trainer, Athletic Director Sandy Ferguson thought he’d never be able to replace her. Once he met Sonja Johnson, ATC, ACE, LMT, he realized he was wrong.

“It was a surprise for all of us, because the athletic trainer who was here before her was very, very well respected,” says Ferguson. “Sonja has exceeded all our expectations. She’s got a tremendous amount of knowledge, and she’s got great interpersonal skills, whether she’s talking with coaches, teachers, parents, or students. She’s a true professional, and she is very much a part of our mission here at Coronado.”

Connected to the mainland by a bridge to the north and a thin strip of land to the south, Coronado sits at the center of a peninsula located off the coast of San Diego. Drawing many of its students from the peninsula’s two naval bases, the school has about 900 students, almost half of them active participants in its 23 sports teams. To Ferguson, his primary mission is to bring young people to education through athletics, emphasizing ethics, values, and the importance of teamwork.

Johnson has become a big part of this mission, devoting huge amounts of time to her student-athletes, working on nights and weekends, and covering as many as a dozen games on a single day. She’s made an enormous impression on the young people around her, training for her triathlons alongside their team workouts, and setting an example of patience, hard work, and determination.

“She’s very giving of her time,” says Ferguson. “During Christmas vacation, when theoretically she’s off-duty, she’ll be in here, taping athletes, getting them off to games. When staff members hurt themselves, they’ll call Sonja and she’ll respond. I’ve told her that her job is the kids, she doesn’t have to do any of this stuff. But she has a nurse mentality, and if she can help somebody, she’s going to do it.”

For consistently going beyond her required duties, Johnson receives Training & Conditioning’s Above the Call Award.

“She’s always there for us, whenever we need her,” says sophomore Danielle Cabana, a miler on Coronado’s track team, and one of two students who nominated Johnson for the award. “When I tore my hamstring last year, she helped me get it back to normal. Thanks to her, I can run again. And just recently, I decided that I might want to become an athletic trainer like she is, because she makes it seem like a lot of fun.”

“This is a great community, a great school system, and a great working environment,” says Johnson, who moved to Coronado with her husband, a Navy Seal. “I’ve gotten a lot of support here from everyone. When the principal and the teachers and the coaches stand by you, and really want you to succeed at your job, it makes a huge difference. The best part is that I get to be with these kids, having these friendships, seeing them through their athletic careers, and feeling as though I’m a part of it.”

Johnson competed on the women’s soccer team at the University of Vermont until an injury forced her to take an eight-month break from competitive sports. That’s when she first got interested in athletic training. After graduating in 1994 with a BS in Education, Johnson followed up her degree with an ATC credential in 1995, an ACE personal training certificate in 1998, and a massage technician certificate in 2000.

She worked as a student teacher at Harwood Union (Vt.) High School, before taking her first athletic training job at Hamilton-Wenham Regional (Mass.) High School, and her second at Babson College. During that time, she began training as a long distance runner, competing in three Boston marathons. Johnson relocated to Coronado in the winter of 1999, and started her job at Coronado High School within weeks.

“Sonja treats the kids firmly and fairly, and they respect her for it,” says Ferguson. “She’s able to go out and deal calmly with a kid that’s writhing in pain. She’s very soothing with the kids, and her confidence is very reassuring.

“She is very level-headed, and maybe that comes from being a triathlete. I’ve never seen her lose her temper,” continues Ferguson. “Because of her job, she has to deal with a lot of anxious parents, and she always stands her ground. She’s not appeasing, she’s just very level, very patient with people. It’s a tremendous burden off me to have somebody there who is obviously very professional, and very able to deal with injuries on site.”

In four years at Coronado, Johnson’s most challenging rehabs have been with ACL injuries and chronically re-injured hamstrings. For each, she tries to find the key that will motivate her athlete toward recovery. For many of her students, the struggle to heal is as much emotional as it is physical. Johnson offers support in both, striking a balance between encouragement and physical exercise, keeping them focused on a goal of recovery, and emphasizing the importance of understanding the causes of their injuries.

“What I want is to help kids better sense their own bodies, to know physiologically what is going on,” says Johnson. “They need to know why the muscles are strained, and what they can do about it. For some of these kids, coming back from an injury is the hardest work they’ve ever had to do. That’s where I come in, getting them to stick to their exercise regimen, and motivating them to keep coming to the training room.”

Johnson uses two things to her advantage in forging strong bonds with her student-athletes—her own athletic endeavors as an adult and her experience recovering from her own injury. “I try to set a good example by working hard and staying in shape,” says Johnson, who is currently competing in regional triathlons, consistently finishing near the top of her age group. “In this type of job, especially in the school environment, you’ve got to walk the walk to talk the talk.

“A lot of times, especially in the fall with the football athletes, we’ll do some of the conditioning together, the sit-ups and the push-ups and the sprints,” she continues. “I do it right along with them, and they absolutely fear that. So they work pretty hard, because they don’t want to be outrun by an old girl.”

Johnson puts her massage training to good use in rehabs of ankle injuries and muscle tightness, believing that “a little bit of hands-on can really accelerate the healing process.” In the future, she hopes to set aside part of her day at Coronado to teach a class in athletic training. And even though it would be one more responsibility, it would give her more of what she loves best about her job: contact with the students.

“She’s always happy, so you know she really enjoys her job,” says Coronado sophomore Krystina Noah. “She’s really easy to talk to about things other than sports, because she understands what we’re going through. She’s taught me that things may not always be easy, that you have to work to get what you want. And you shouldn’t be discouraged if something looks hard, because it may not be as hard as it looks.”

“I make a lot of good friendships with the students, and I think I stand in a unique position with them,” says Johnson. “I’m not their teacher, I’m not their peer, I’m not their parent, I’m not their youth counselor. I’m this person who they can speak pretty frankly with, and we have a real bond, one where they know they’re not going to be judged. I spend a lot of time with them, trying to contribute to their full education, and not just asking them what hurts.

“There have been some very long days, but I don’t want to skimp on anybody,” continues Johnson. “I want to be here, maybe even a little more than necessary. And I want them all to be successful.”