Cajon’s Seth Johnson has no time for days off as a four-event track star

Cajon High senior Seth Johnson competes in the third leg of the boys' 100-meter relay.
Cajon High senior Seth Johnson competes in the third leg of the boys’ 100-meter relay at the Trabuco Hills Invitational on Saturday.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Seth Johnson wasn’t supposed to do anything special.

Two days earlier, the San Bernardino Cajon High track and field sensation had won the high school boys’ pentathlon at the Nike Indoor Nationals in New York. So for this March 15 dual meet against Beaumont, head coach Tracy Jackson convinced Johnson to rest. Just compete in one event, the high jump, instead of his usual four. Just notch a decent score and relax.

Sure, Johnson was listening. But he just felt good.


Taking photos on the side, his mother, Mia, told Jackson that her son was gearing up to hit a personal record. Before the coach knew it, his protege was bending his spine like a slinky over a bar six-feet, nine-inches high. With the smack of his back against the pad, Johnson was suddenly the state leader in the high jump.

“I literally had to walk over there just to see the bar,” Jackson said. “That was amazing; seeing even on an off day, this kid went out and PR’d.”

Really, there are no off days for Johnson, a senior now committed to the University of California for track and field. He competes in four events — a mix and match of hurdles, high jump, long jump and relays. Johnson’s mother and coach try to slow him down sometimes.

But he will not stop running, jumping and leaping.

“I struggle with wanting to do everything,” Johnson said. “Being the best at everything.”

Her son, Mia said, had that mentality since birth.

It wasn’t always track and field. At 5, it was Spider-Man. Then animals at 8. Dinosaurs at 10. Mia would buy him encyclopedia after encyclopedia, a young Johnson poring through facts on paleontology until he was an expert.

“I just have that personality,” Johnson said. “I like to get obsessed.”

Seth Johnson competes in the 110-meter hurdles at the Trabuco Hills Invitational on Saturday.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The next obsession was track, where Johnson’s grown from a freshman who flew under the radar into a multi-event powerhouse. He’s tied for 12th in the nation in the high jump, fourth in California in the 110-meter hurdles and he finished second in the long jump at last year’s Southern Section Division I championships.

He had talent his freshman year, Jackson said, who’s also Johnson’s strength and conditioning coach. But he was just hitting his stride.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Johnson turned into a gym rat. If Jackson told him to do 12 reps, he’d do 13.

When Cajon reconvened for two meets that 2020 season, Johnson was just “different,” his coach said.

“He was just head and shoulders over everybody,” Jackson said.

Seth Johnson warms up before competing in the high jump at the Trabuco Hills Invitational on Saturday.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

On Saturday, Johnson bounded across the all-weather track at Trabuco High, his forest green sweats clinging to his legs as he prepared for the high jump at the Trabuco Hills Invitational. Breezing over a bar set for warmups, he bounded back up off the pad without breaking a sweat.

Johnson strolled past an incredulous Burrell Adams of San Pedro, flashes of exasperation and admiration forming a smile on his competitor’s face.

“That’s everybody’s PR right there,” Adams told Johnson.

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At Trabuco Hills his freshman year, Johnson “no-heighted” in the high jump — not even clearing the bar once. He was in awe that year as his competition cleared 6-6.

Now in his senior year, the field was looking at him with those same wide eyes.

“A little bit [weird],” Johnson said, smiling softly as he stood on the field inside the track.

Sometimes, he dreams of stepping back. Focusing all his attention on that high jump, or the hurdles.

Johnson’s obsessive nature is a blessing and a curse. He’s been tempted at different points throughout high school to join the volleyball team and the swim team, only to be talked down by his parents. It’s why he does four events at every meet: He’ll tackle as much as he can, as hard as he can.

Yet he’s had moments where his pace will slow ever-so-slightly on his last event of the day, his hamstrings tightening.

“That’s the only thing that kind of sucks,” Johnson said. “I just sometimes wish I could focus on one thing and be an event specialist, but that’s just not really in the cards for me.”

Jackson feels his star runner sometimes spreads himself too thin.

“We’re talking about a kid that could even skip college to go professional in a year,” Jackson said. “That is how good [he’d be] if he would specialize in one event.”

Seth Johnson receives the baton from El Cajon teammate Brent Austin.
Seth Johnson receives the baton from Cajon teammate Brent Austin during the boys’ 100-meter relay at the Trabuco Hills Invitational.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Seth Johnson talks with his 100-meter relay teammates.
Seth Johnson, second from right, talks with his 100-meter relay teammates (from left) Brent Austin, Ethan Powell and Jeyquan Smith after finishing second at the Trabuco Hills Invitational.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Why doesn’t Johnson cut down the workload?

“My team needs me,” he said.

By the end of the week, after hours of specific event training each day, Johnson’s gassed. But he enjoys the grind. It feeds his appetite.

“It kinda feels like I do one impossible thing a day,” Johnson said.

On Saturday, he was back to trying the impossible. At Trabuco Hills, he cleared 6-foot and 6-2 with ease in the high jump, showing no signs of fatigue after finishing second in the 110-meter hurdles earlier that morning.

Johnson said he and his Cajon teammates were using the Trabuco Hills Invitational to gear up for the Arcadia Invitational on April 8. But as he kept jumping, his competition returned to earth. After just a few attempts, Johnson found himself alone in the field.

The event administrator walked up to Johnson, asking if he wanted to keep going up two inches at a time. He’d already won. But the Berkeley commit nodded.

Cajon's Seth Johnson smiles as he prepares to compete at the Trabuco Hills Invitational on Saturday.
Cajon’s Seth Johnson smiles as he prepares to compete at the Trabuco Hills Invitational on Saturday.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The bar kept rising, 6-4, then 6-6, and Johnson kept torqueing himself higher. A small crowd, slowly gathering on the edge of the track, let out hollers. Finally, Johnson ran back over.

“Can you guys just put it at 6-10?” he asked.

Johnson didn’t clear it. That might have been impossible in the moment. But he just wanted to try, because that’s what he loves about high jump: it’s Seth Johnson vs. Seth Johnson.