The second he completed the first long jump of his career, Tao Johnson didn’t know what to think. Had he jumped with the right technique? Was his mark, 21’3, up to par? Maybe his competition wasn’t as tight as he expected.
“I didn’t know what was good,” Johnson said with a chuckle.
Thunder Ridge’s precocious junior felt out of place. He had never tried the long jump before, let alone track and field in general. He hadn’t even trained for the event, not even in practice the week of the Jerome Quad on March 19.
Naturally, Johnson won the event, but the best part for him was that wasn’t the best part of the meet.
Instead, Johnson also won the 100, which he had never tried either. He won it the next meet, too, and the meet after that. When he won the 100 at the Bonneville Invite in 10.62 seconds, he set a personal record and secured the top time in Idaho, which stood for the rest of the season.
By now, you know the rest: On May 22, Johnson won the 5A state title in the 100, using a time of 10.82 seconds to earn the top mark at the highest classification in the state. He also took third in the long jump and the 4x100 relay, but the 100 is the event opening doors for Johnson, the speedster who says he never expected to contend in track — if he ever competed in the first place.
“I just feel relieved, just knowing that I did it with the pressure,” Johnson said after winning the title. “Just blessed to be here. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the best athletes in the state. So it’s crazy that I got to do this.”
If you’ve seen Johnson, you know he looks the part: 6-foot-2, slender, athletic. He plays football and basketball. By all accounts, he’s a naturally gifted athlete, the kind of player — in any sport — who tends to make things look effortless. So why hadn’t he run track before?
The answer involves his traveling basketball team, Hoop Dreams, which plays during the spring season. That conflicts with track, and until this year, Johnson always chose basketball. He saw more of a future in that sport.
That is beginning to change. In February, after Thunder Ridge basketball’s season ended in the district final — a disappointing finish considering the Titans finished 19-5 and No. 3 in Idahosports.com’s Class 5A power rankings — Johnson wanted to relax, to take his mind off basketball.
Good thing he did.
Days after he won state in the 100, Johnson received an offer from Idaho State football, which noticed Johnson’s scintillating speed. He’s also received attention from a handful of other schools, which have given him different options. Some have offered to let him play football and basketball, while others have limited things to basketball only.
“It’s kind of hard to weigh out which option you want to do,” Johnson said. “Two-for-one, or just one?”
So which way is he leaning?
“Ask me a month ago, and I would have told you I wanted to play college basketball, easily,” Johnson said. “After my success, and seeing what college athletes are running around here in the 100 and long jump, and seeing that I’m competitive right now in my first year, football and track is kind of changing my mind about it.”
Take a look at the numbers and it’s easy to see why.
This season, Johnson never lost in the 100. In fact, his PR of 10.62 seconds is Idaho’s fastest time since 2015, when Mountain View’s Bryce Kirby clocked a 10.57 race.
In the 4x100, Johnson’s relay team of himself, Elijah Johnson, Maxwell Whitehouse and Kody Robinson earned three first-place finishes, their best time coming in 43.57 seconds at the 5A/4A District 6 meet. The group finished third at state.
Johnson also never finished worse than third in the long jump. He won his first three events, his best leap a 22’11.5 mark, the second best in the state this season. He went on to take third at districts and state, where he ended his junior campaign with a 22’2 jump.
“That’s pretty good for a first time going,” Thunder Ridge long jump coach Devin Scoresby said. “Pretty amazing to come out and not only win the 100 meters — in the 5A division — and then also place third in the long jump.”
Here, Scoresby offers an interesting wrinkle: Throughout the season, and especially toward the back end, Johnson was dealing with a quad/hamstring strain. That’s why he felt especially proud of the junior’s finish.
“Third place was actually pretty good,” Scoresby said, “because he didn’t even really train the whole week between districts and state.”
Which brings us back to now. Johnson is headed into his senior season, which means he has some time to make a decision on his college plans, but not much. In fact, the offers might start to pour in this fall, when he uses his white-hot speed to catch the eyes of even more schools.
Still, Johnson maintains perspective. He prioritizes education. At the moment, he’s considering a couple options: Law school and social sciences. He wants to “have an impactful job,” in his own words.
On the athletics front, Johnson remains undecided. The only certainties might be that he has ruled out basketball, that track and football have become his priorities.
That’s what speed does.
“He’s a gifted athlete,” Scoresby said. “When you look at how well he performs in football and basketball, you just know if you can get kids like that on the track field, they will do fantastic. They will do phenomenally — and he did.”