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Johnson provides amazing life lesson

Prep Notebook

Coaches like to tell their players sports prepares you for the challenges of life.

That's true in many ways.

For 32-year-old Nickola Johnson, life has prepared her to handle whatever challenges she'll meet as she takes over the Grants Pass High volleyball program.

Twice in the past five years she's endured soul-shaking events, one that nearly took her life and another that gripped the nation.

This time last year, Johnson was the junior varsity coach at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo. She taught at the Denver Street School. One of her players was Laura Townsend, who died in the April 20 slaughter along with 12 other victims and two assailants.

I was teaching at another school, but went to Columbine every day at 1:30 p.m. to help with athletic training and spring stuff,'' Johnson says. It happened two hours before I would've gotten there. the time I got there, everything was shut down and the students were filtering over to Leawood Elementary.

It might be easy to conclude the shooting caused the 1986 Grants Pass graduate to head home, but that wasn't the case.

Of course, you can never predict when tragedies like that will happen, Johnson says. I had already planned to leave Colorado after 11 years and come home.

Even in the Rogue Valley the echoes of the gunshots and cries for help still ring, however.

Darrell Scott, whose daughter was one of the first to die that day, has been touring the country with 13 crosses commemorating the 13 victims. He will speak at a Columbine redemption rally 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Mel Ingram Field on the Grants Pass campus Johnson remembers the three students who still can't walk or have great difficulty walking. She will share her thoughts about the day and give her perspective.

While she was in no danger last April, five years earlier her life hung in the balance.

Johnson is a graduate of Colorado Christian University near Denver, where she played volleyball. Although she kept in tip-top shape and was involved in athletics, she noticed something wasn't quite right. Her doctors weren't sure what it was until she collapsed while fielding a ball in the outfield during a softball game.

I was working two jobs and my heart-rate was going up and no one could figure it out, she recalls. I was out in left field and I threw the ball in. My arm went numb.

Then she blacked out and toppled forward. Her heart rate soared to 280 beats per minute, she went into cardiac arrest and was rushed to a hospital.

What I learned from it all was to take life day by day and to enjoy every moment, Johnson says. I went from being an athlete and doing everything to being limited for a period of time.

The recovery took as much effort as anything she had ever done.

When I was finally able to run a mile without pain, it was a huge step, she says. When I was able to climb a 14,000-foot mountain that was another big step.

Johnson's brush with death has given her an added insight and understanding to pain.

Everybody's hurts and pains are different and everyone has different tolerances, Johnson says. I'm pretty sympathetic unless I'm dealing with a hypochondriac. Whether its heart surgery, a broken leg or a sprained ankle, it's all pain.

If you plan on attending Class 4A, 3A or 2A state basketball tournaments this winter, the price for a season ticket will cost you $40 for adults and $25 for students. The Oregon School Activities Association also approved associate membership for Community Christian Academy of Cave Junction.

(Greg Stiles is a Mail Tribune sportswriter. He can be reached by phone at 776-4483 or via e-mail at )