(Column flashback) Remembering the late Johanna Nilsson and one of her finest hours as an athlete

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Dec. 3, 2005.

Note: Johanna Nilsson was one of the most supremely talented athletes I’ve ever seen. She passed away at age 30 in June 2013 in an apparent suicide.

Nilsson’s run-away cross country championship was no small feat

By Ed Odeven

Winning should be enjoyable for any athlete. Sometimes, though, it’s even more enjoyable for a coach.

Such was the case for NAU cross country coach John Hayes on Nov. 21 at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind.

While at nationals, Hayes witnessed history being made in the women’s 6-kilometer race. Lumberjacks standout Johanna Nilsson took first in a field of 253 runners, setting a course-record of 19 minutes, 34 seconds in the process. Nilsson shared or held the lead for the entire race.

“As a coach, you may or may not ever have another NCAA cross-country champion,” Hayes said, flashing a million-dollar smile a week later. “It’s different than track, where there’s all the events. These are all the best distance runners. So I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach her this year, and if it works out that she’s able to repeat or come close to a repeat, I’ll be more than happy to be there.”

What’s more, Nilsson, a junior, obliterated the competition, winning by an astounding 12.1 seconds.

Is this really a big deal? You betcha.

Let Dr. Jack Daniels, the head distance coach at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training and one of the world’s foremost running experts, explain why.

“It is not often that a runner can run with the pack, including some very talented runners, for 5,000 meters and in the final 1,000 run away from second place by (almost) 13 seconds,” Daniels said. “You just don’t beat that many good runners by that much in that short a distance.”

It was the fastest time on the course since the 2002 NCAA Championship Race, when North Carolina’s Shalane Flanagan crossed the finish line in 19:36.

In other words, it was an exceptional performance.

Or as Hayes put it: “It’s the best race I’ve seen from her. It was so dominant. It was hard to say she could’ve done better.”

During the race, Hayes ran back and forth on the course’s big loop to observe how the seven Lumberjack runners were doing.

It didn’t take Hayes long to realize Nilsson was having an exceptional day. His eyes and ears told him as much.

“With about 800 (or) 1,000 meters to go, I had heard the announcer say she had gapped the field by 15 meters,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow, that happened pretty quickly.’ About two minutes later, that 15 meters had become 80 meters. So I knew she was in pretty good shape.”

A week after her extraordinary triumph, Nilsson didn’t appear to be in a state of glee. In fact, when she spoke to reporters about winning her second national title — she won the indoor mile at the 2002 NCAA Indoor Meet — Nilsson downplayed her win.

“I don’t think I’ve been thinking about it that much,” she said. “I mean you notice it because people come up and (and say) congratulations and all that. It’s fun, I guess, but other than that it’s just school and normal life again.”

Nilsson’s response didn’t surprise her coach.

“She’s got so much ability and she’s worked so hard that she tries not to overemphasize one thing,” said Hayes, a former Russian linguist in the Army. For her, she enjoys winning, but it’s not the end-all, be-all of life. It was nice to win. And so we try not to put too much importance on one race.”

Nilsson competed in five races during the fall season, taking first at the Aztec Invitational, Big Sky Championships, NCAA Mountain Region Championships and nationals. At the Pre-National meet, she placed seventh.

Something was special, though, about Nilsson’s performance Nov. 21. And she knew it as soon as the race began.

“In the race I felt really good all the time,” she says now. “I was, like, positive, of course. .. It was a nice feeling. I was like, ‘Maybe this is going to turn out really good.'”

“I guess I’m pretty either/or, up or down with everything I do, maybe that reflects in racing, too,” she added. “I either have good races or (bad) races. When I’m on, I’m on, and when I’m off, it’s bad.”

And how big a deal was Nilsson’s victory back home? Three Swedish newspapers interviewed her within two hours after her title-winning race.

Nilsson’s older sister, Ida, closed out her collegiate career by winning the 5,000-meter race at the 2005 NCAA Indoor Championships. She also won the 3,000 steeplechase at the 2004 NCAA Outdoor Championships. And she set more than 25 Big Sky Conference records during her days at NAU. (She’s now in South Africa at a training camp while rehabbing from an injury.)

Does that means Johanna’s success in running has something to do with genetics?

“It’s so hard to figure,” Hayes said. “There’s always the question with great athlete: Is it because they work so hard? Or) is it because they have natural talent? I think you’ve got to have the combination of both, and she’s someone that’s stayed around. She does the extra drills. She does extra stretching where the team is long gone.

“Johanna is doing all the little things to allow her to win in such a dominant fashion.”

Naturally, when she first began participating in running events in her hometown of Kalmar, Sweden, Nilsson enjoyed these activities like other kids enjoy an adventurous game of hide-and-seek.

“It was like you ran (a kilometer) you got an ice cream and candy and you were all happy,” she said. “It wasn’t that competitive.

“You run the 800, you do the 16 (1,600), you do the shot put, and you’re just rushing around. … But then I ended up not being very good at anything else,” she said, laughing.

So she decided to stick with distance running.

It’s unclear, however, if Nilsson’s future will involve competitive running. She did place second at the 2002 Swedish National Cross Country Championship and could probably earn a spot on the 2008 Swedish Olympic team.

“I don’t really have long-term goals,” she said, “because I don’t really function that way too good I guess. So we’ll see what happens.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do,’ like some of the kids have that dream when they are young.”

Is she a future Olympian? I asked Hayes.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“She’s just trying to figure out what she wants to do in her life, and over the next few years I’m sure it’s going to become more clear,” Hayes said.

Then, he added, “If she wants to be (an Olympian), she will be.”

It’s hard to argue with that conclusion.

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“It is fun to see a country start American football”

This feature story appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 31, 2005.

NAU’s international outreach

By Ed Odeven

Before the widespread use of radios and automobiles, televisions and airplanes, Americans watched and played football on grassy fields in small towns and large cities.

Overseas, the sport took longer to gain a respectable following.

But Larry Kentera has seen firsthand how football has grown in Europe. He coached German club teams during the 1993-95 seasons. He worked for an Italian club in ’97.

“American football in Europe is big, in Germany, in Spain, in Sweden,” Kentera, Northern Arizona’s head coach from 1985-89, said in a phone interview. “I’m talking about the people playing it. I’m talking about how the people are interested in it.”

This is especially evident in Germany, he said, noting that four of NFL Europe’s six teams are based there.

Though football is now well-established in Germany, it is still in its infancy in other countries, including Serbia and Montenegro.

Kentera left Phoenix Monday for a trip to the Eastern European nation, where he’ll accompany ex-Arizona State football assistant Gene Felker to teach the game to high school and college-age students. Both are volunteer coaches.

ACDI/VOCA, a private, non-profit organization which works to promote broad-based economic growth and the development of civil society in emerging democracies and developing countries, is paying the coaches’ expenses and sponsoring the trip.

Starting today through June 19, Kentera and Felker will visit several cities, including the capital Belgrade, for a series of practices, clinics and meetings.

“The biggest part of our trip there is going to teach them fundamentals,” Kentera said, “and then more technical parts of the game, like different techniques for offensive linemen, linebackers and running backs.”

In Serbia, the ex-Yugoslav republic that now forms a confederation with Montenegro, American football is just beginning. The Serbian American Football Federation, a five-team league comprised of the Wild Boars, Belgrade, Legionaries, Panthers and Steeds, completed its first official season in 2004.

“It is fun to see a country start American football,” Kentera said. “It’s going to be interesting.”

And Kentera, who is of Serbian descent, is eager to lend a helping hand.

“These people want to get a program started. They want to know more about American football,” said the 80-year-old who grew up in Globe and later worked for 13 years as the Sun Devils defensive coordinator under legendary coach Frank Kush.

“We are going to help them on some techniques and schemes, offensively and defensively.”

NAU is also playing a role in this trip. The university has donated approximately 500 pairs of athletic shoes — some shoes that remain in their original boxes, many of which date back to 1981 — and an assortment of used shoulder pads, practice shirts and pants to ACDI/VOCA.

Equipment is scarce overseas, Kentera said.

NAU’s equipment, meanwhile, has been collecting dust in the Skydome for years, according to Lumberjacks equipment manager George Fox.

So why couldn’t the school divvy it up among local schools? NCAA rules prohibit university athletic departments from giving equipment to high schools because it’s considered illegal recruiting.

That said, this isn’t the first time NAU planned to donate the equipment. Fox, a retired Air Force major, wanted to send a shipment of athletic shoes to Iraq.

“I’d see some TV clips of young kids playing soccer there and they are barefoot,” Fox said. “And that’s when I got the idea, ‘Hey, maybe we can … send them over there.’

“We had worked it out last year (that) we were going to try to send it to Iraq because there was a program going on that FedEx would ship them free. But that program shut down in a hurry before we could get it together.”

Fast forward to 2005. Recently, Kentera called NAU athletics director Jim Fallis to inform him of his summer trip. Then Fallis called Fox to ask him, ‘Hey, is there anything we can do to help these guys out?'” Fox recalled.

So the equipment was rounded up at the Skydome and put on wood pallets. Swift Trucking Company made the recent pickup. The supplies were taken to New York, where other equipment had been stored before it was sent overseas.

“It’s an opportunity to do something good, so we were glad to be a part of it,” Fox said.

Said Kentera: “NAU was very nice to provide assistance. We appreciate the equipment to help this program out.”

Kentera, who was 26-29 during his tenure with the Lumberjacks, is semi-retired and lives in the Valley.

He runs 2 miles or plays golf every day. He’s also a consultant to a sports agent, offering evaluations of potential clients.

When you speak to him, his love of football and NAU is evident immediately.

“I tell you what,” he said, “some of my greatest memories are being at NAU. We just loved it up there, the wife and I.”

“Just the other day, a group of our players when I was up there called me and said we’ve got to get together.”

A group of ex-Jacks visits with Kentera three to four times a year.

But before he returns home, Kentera has plenty of fun activities planned. He’ll visit some of his former German players in Kiel, Germany, a coastal town on the Baltic Sea. He’ll hang out with cousins in Budva, a Montenegran city on the Adriatic Sea.

“When I’m there, I might as well enjoy myself,” he said with a good-natured chuckle, revealing he won’t be back in Arizona until July 6.

All in all, Kentera sees nothing but good things coming from the grassroots development of football in Serbia.

“(Through sports), people get together and congregate and express their ideas and express their culture, express their personal life,” he said. “You get a lot from being in sports, playing against each other, with each other.

“I think that’s a good thing about sports.”

Even far away from home.