Taking a friend out to dinner is a mundane activity for most college students, but for Occidental sprinter Jeh Johnson (first-year), this seemingly simple event involves a full fleet of motorcades speeding through every stoplight and a reserved seat at any restaurant of his choice. His father — also named Jeh Johnson — was sworn in as Secretary of Homeland Security in December of last year.
If his high-profile home life is not enough, Johnson’s late transition from soccer to track and field compounds his unusual background. Despite not taking to the track for the first time until his senior year of high school, Johnson is expected to play a prominent role on the Tigers’ relay squad, competing in the 4×100 meter and 4×400 meter relays. Individually, he is slated to participate in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races.
Before the season, Johnson had already impressed his collegiate teammates with his high school performances.
“My first interaction with new sprinters on the team is to probe their [personal records] from them,” captain Kevin Cox (senior) said. “His PRs were pretty decent; I saw that and was kind of excited.”
Johnson played soccer for four years at The Field School in Washington, D.C. During his senior year, the school’s track and field coach noticed his speed on the pitch and convinced Johnson to join the track team.
Even so, the Occidental track and field program did not recruit Johnson. Instead, he approached the coaching staff and captured their attention with his times, and then he walked on to the team.
Johnson originally grew up in Washington, D.C. when the elder Johnson served as the General Counsel of the Air Force under the Clinton administration. The Johnson family moved to New Jersey after his service ended but returned to the nation’s capital in 2009 when President Barack Obama appointed Johnson’s father Department of Defense General Counsel.
“It’s definitely been very interesting to have a parent who’s very important in the government field,” Johnson said. “I see him as my dad, but then other people see him as this very intimidating, high-power figure.”
Although his father holds one of the most high-profile federal positions, Johnson says he has not let it affect his life at Occidental. In fact, few members of the track and field team knew of his father’s position until his parents visited the campus to watch the Rossi Relays on Feb. 22.
“I had started to get used to it over break and, when I came back here, I kind of readjusted to being on my own and not seeing his detail everywhere,” Johnson said. “When he came, it was kind of like ‘Oh, wow, this is what he’s used to now. This is him.’ It’s definitely cool to watch.”
Secret service and Campus Safety officers surrounded both the Bill Henry Track and Stewart-Cleland Residence Hall during his parents’ visit. Even Johnson was initially turned away by a Campus Safety officer when he attempted to greet his father.
“I was walking up to Stewie, and I was going to go say hi to my dad and a [Campus Safety] officer stopped me and said ‘This is area’s closed off,’ he said. “I told him ‘I’m just going to see my dad.’”
Back on the track, Johnson has set his goal times for 50 seconds flat in the 400 and under 11 seconds in the 100.
Johnson mostly ran short distance sprints in high school. Now at Occidental, he must take on the unfamiliar challenge of running the 400, arguably one of the most grueling events in the sport.
“[The 400] is not the most fun race to run just because you know it’s going to be painful afterwards,” Johnson said. “But I feel a sense of accomplishment after I run it, just because it’s something I’m not entirely used to, and I’m getting better at it pretty quickly.”
Cox and sprints coach Tyler Yamaguchi both believe that Johnson has the ability to be a successful sprinter over the next four years, with the possibility of competing for SCIAC and national championships.
“As he gets older and becomes a mature person and more mature athlete, I think he will take on a bigger and bigger role on the team,” Yamaguchi said. “I see great potential for him.”