University High School student Miguel Jimenez runs at the head of a pack in the 4x800-meter relay at the district track meet in Orlando, Florida.

Pursuing Success on and off the Field

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“Set … GO!” Four young runners leap off their marks, sprinting down the dirt-and-grass interior of an old concrete track. Beside the track, assistant coach Lorna Johnson calls out.

“Stephanie, keep your knees up! Quit bein’ cute with your hands!” she exclaims. “Keep your wrists straight!”

“Your chin needs to come down, Naz!” Lorna yells. “Bring your chin down; keep your head still!”

This is a typical track practice for Orlando’s University High School. But some of these students have a closely guarded secret most of their teammates and classmates don’t know. Coach Lorna does.

Former Olympian in the 100-meter hurdles and current volunteer track coach Lorna Johnson cheers on her team in the 4x800-meter relay.

From the Olympics back to high school

Lorna became a world-class athlete at 19, competing in 100-meter hurdles and pentathlon as a U.S. alternate in the 1972 Olympics. Long after she’d hung up her cleats professionally, her two high-school-age daughters chose to run hurdles. But they felt the coaching slowed them down. “Mom, you need to come and help us, ’cause they don’t know what they’re doing!” Lorna remembers them saying. Thus began her 20 years of track coaching, first in Minnesota, and now in Florida.

“I realized I loved coaching, and my husband said I was a natural at it,” Lorna says. This is not surprising, because she has mentored college students for 37 years as a full-time staff member with Cru®.

Based on her own experience as an athlete, Lorna instructs new hurdler Brandon Keys during a practice on how to consistently clear the hurdles.

Two sprinters, Ariana Cirina and Stephanie Colon, increase their strength by resisting each other under Lorna’s instruction. “Drive, pump your arms! Drive, drive, drive!” Lorna says.

As a former athlete, Lorna benefited from a physical education teacher, a coach, friends and a community that believed in her as she progressed athletically. They sustained her through her college years, when she met Jesus.

“When I introduce myself to the team, I’ll say I have a faith in Christ, so there are certain standards and principles I follow.” She knows she may be the only person showing them Jesus, and sometimes students mock her for it: “There she goes, with that Jesus again!” But they also know she cares about them.

During a recent practice, one runner collapsed from dehydration. He could have died if he didn’t remain conscious until the paramedics arrived. Lorna cradled his head off the field. Understanding some of his religious background, she asked if he would repeat some prayers until they arrived.

Lorna ices the calf of a sprinter during a track practice at University High School.

The lost athletes

Through the years, Lorna heard head coaches say, “We have good athletes, here today and gone tomorrow. Where are they?”

So Lorna searched for answers. In 2015-2016, the Florida Department of Education said that nearly 7,000 students were homeless in Orange County, where University High School sits. Many of her students are experiencing homelessness, moving two or three times per week, often living in hotels, wooded areas, on friends’ couches or out of their cars. “They’re just trying to survive,” Lorna says.

She has dedicated herself to helping them, and other students like them, see success both on and off the field.

Lorna encourages runner Sarah Tran to conserve her energy by resting her legs before her event.

Lorna jokes with UHS discus thrower Evan Thompson before his event begins at the district track meet.

One promising hurdler, Josh, needed rides to and from meets and practices. Lorna stepped in. “I always thought he was just being nice, having me drop him off at a cul-de-sac,” she says. But Lorna later learned, through a school administrator, that Josh and his mother lived in the woods behind the cul-de-sac.

Josh also worked a 40-hour-per-week job to help his family. Lorna connected him to a school program that pays transportation costs for homeless students. Because he dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, he attended the only high school with a pre-vet program. Josh spent more than four hours per day traveling to and from school on a city bus.

“You must get a lot of homework done,” Lorna said to Josh.

“I am so tired, Coach,” he replied. “I just sleep on the bus. I just couldn’t keep up a 3.8. My GPA is now a 3.2.”

Lorna volunteers at United Against Poverty and connects students and their families with UAP’s resources, including food and housing, job training, education and referrals to other services.

To provide the kind of support she received as an athlete, Lorna founded the non-profit mentoring program Orlando Athletic Training Academy. OAT Academy aims high school athletes toward graduation and collegiate success by providing structure, guidance and skills for competition, academics and life.

“These homeless students are uniquely equipped to handle society’s ills due to their own ability to survive,” Lorna says. “They work hard and apply knowledge and gifts in ways students aren’t taught in school.”

With the help of a mentor

Laughter and conversation suddenly break the stillness of the school library. During track season, team members file in after school for tutoring, mentorship and various guest speakers.

Lorna introduces Ronnie Peirce, a Cru® staff member and a volunteer with Florida Abolitionist, a non-profit organization dedicated to stopping human trafficking and helping survivors. Teenagers, especially those who are homeless or at risk, are particularly vulnerable to traffickers.

Lorna jokes with volunteer Kara Coe, a Cru® staff mom who tutors student athletes.

Lorna’s Christian volunteer tutors include a former discus thrower, Caila Coleman, now an attorney with her own family law practice. Kara Cole, a mom and staff member with Cru who spent 15 years overseas as a missionary, is another tutor. Greg Hersey, a former Cru and Impact Movement® staff member, is a tutor and mentor for male athletes. Others have helped along the way. They not only help with specific subjects like science or writing, but they also work to establish the students’ trust by listening and asking questions.

This week, Ronnie Peirce — a volunteer with Florida Abolitionist — educates the students about human trafficking in Orlando high schools and how to spot warning signs in friends.

The tutors refer students to resources, such as an 18-month program developing leaders for Fortune 500 companies or to free camps for students interested in math or medicine. Two years ago, Lorna also raised money to take teenagers to Athletes in Action®’s The Ultimate Training Camp in Ohio. There, they gathered with 1,500 students from around the U.S. and learned to apply biblical principles to athletics.

These mentors strive to prepare them for life after high school. “If these students do qualify for athletic scholarships, a lot of them drop out,” Lorna says. “If you get a scholarship, that school owns you, but these homeless students aren’t used to someone telling them when to eat, when to study and when to work out.”

Lorna tells students the story of Jesus’ resurrection after a practice. She watches for appropriate opportunities to talk about spiritual topics with students.

Because of volunteering and coaching’s time demands, Lorna cannot spiritually mentor students full time, but she seeks on-the-spot opportunities, such as having conversations about their lives or showing short films from the Jesus Film® app on her phone. Lorna sends her students to Cru’s high school ministry staff members and their programs for more in-depth mentoring.

How to cross finish lines

Saturday’s all-day district track meet buzzes with activity. Events occur simultaneously, which keeps Lorna moving.

She watches one of her athletes complete the high jump and pulls her aside afterward to give advice and encouragement. She walks over to where the shot-putters and discus throwers compete. She loops back to watch her team race in the 4x800-meter relay.

Lorna advises high-jumpers Tierney Underwood and Kaley Samrajit before their event starts at the district track meet.

Jolisa King races in the 4x400-meter relay as one of four team runners. Each athlete takes one lap, 400 meters, around the track and passes the baton to the next runner.

“For many of our athletes, the goal isn’t to win the event,” Lorna says, “it’s to get the younger athletes the experience of running with more experienced athletes, understand the expectations at district track meets and learn to handle their fears and emotions.”

But she does want to see them improve as athletes because colleges recruit based on their event performance. This creates more interest from Division I schools.

Lorna also wants to see her students cross significant finish lines, such as improving their GPAs and earning diplomas. In 2016, the University High School track team earned a fifth-place finish in the state for athletic team GPAs and ranked third among Orange County public schools. The efforts of Lorna, her mentors and their mentees helped to make this happen.

UHS runner Miguel Jimenez (second from right) rounds the bend during the 800-meter race at the district meet.

At the district meet, Lorna provides feedback to Anaya Gibson (middle) and her mother after Anaya’s event, the 100-meter dash.

Due to his hard work, help from others and diligence, former hurdler Josh earned an academic scholarship to Florida A&M University, where he is pursuing his dream of becoming a veterinarian. He recently finished his first year at FAMU.

Because of her background, training and experience, Lorna has experienced the difference that mentoring and coaching relationships can make in the lives of young people like Josh.

“A mentor exposes a young person to something different than the life that surrounds them,” Lorna says. “Someone saw something and believed in me, challenged me, and then gave me the opportunity.”

As a coach, she knows that students take her seriously. And this provides opportunities to show them Jesus and future possibilities they didn’t anticipate.

UHS high-jumper Damarre Martin clears the bar.

Mike Chapman
Words by

Mike Chapman

Born in Colorado, Mike majored in acting/radio, TV and film at Kansas University. Since 1983, he’s served with the campus, Hollywood and military ministries of Cru® and now works at Cru’s World Headquarters at Lake Hart in Orlando, Florida. He and his wife, Michelle, have two children, Angel and Eric.

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Tom Mills
Photos by

Tom Mills

Tom is a photographer with Cru®. He loves seeing beautiful sights out of airplane windows and enjoys meeting new friends all over the world. His wife, Karen, travels with him whenever possible, which makes every trip even better. Tom has been photographing for more than 40 years.

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