Johanna Gretschel is as witty as she is fast. As someone who has written for her school newspaper and contributed articles to mocorunning.com, she will be going to college to focus on journalism. She also received some financial aid for her athletic accomplishments, but she wasn't always a star runner. Read on to learn about her journey from freshman year to her breakout junior year to where she is today. Discover why her contagious personality has been a key to the development of the Blair track and cross country program as a whole.
MoCoRunning: Hi Johanna. I want to start off by letting you make an announcement. I understand that you have been busy with the college recruiting process and you've made a final decision. Tell us about that process and of course tell us where you've decided to go.
Gretschel: The college recruiting process and really the entire college application process was probably the second worst experience of my life, the first being when I had mono two summers ago. I would go into detail but you would really rather not hear about it.
I plan on majoring in communications with a focus in journalism, probably newspaper or maybe magazine, so that's what I used to initially pick out individual schools.
Running-wise, I actually struggled for awhile to decide whether or not I wanted to keep competing in college. I want to make sure I have enough time to study and do other activities - running isn't my entire life! - it came down to the fact that I really can't imagine not doing this anymore. Running has become such a presence in my life that I don't want to let go being part of a team just yet. Running on your own doesn't really match the camaraderie that you get from a team atmosphere. I also feel like I haven't really tapped all of my potential; I think everyone wonders how good they could be and now I have four more years to find out.
As for actually choosing a school…I had absolutely no idea where I wanted to go last year and last month, I have to say I was still pretty clueless. It was sort of a problem. I ultimately decided to attend Tulane University next year, which I am pretty cised about!
MoCoRunning: You weren't always Division I material. In fact, you were pretty slow when you first started running. Describe what it was like when you first joined the Blair cross country team in the summer of 2004?
Gretschel: After eighth grade, my mom gave me the option of either playing soccer or running cross country. My lazy butt didn't really want to do anything except go to school and eat but I chose to try out for soccer. Unfortunatley - at the time - my cousins forced me to come to running camp (Concord Retreat in good ole West Virginia!) with them. I cried and whined but I still had to go and the running part sucked about as much as I thought it would, but I surprisingly had a good time other than that. So XC it was.
I wasn't totally clueless about running when I joined the team; I ran CYO track in grade school and my family as well as all of my cousins have been members of MCRRC since the beginning of time so I've been running road races forever. Of course, CYO practices were always like a mile warm-up before practicing long jump or shot put, so doing real work-outs was quite a change. I got used to the running part pretty quickly though. It was a fun team, but maybe a little too fun - all of my freshman year practices alternated between track work-outs and distance runs…a.k.a frisbee games. I guess you could say that's why I was "pretty slow."
MoCoRunning: Did you ever think that some day you could beat the Sinclair sisters? Tell me about the progression from freshman year to your break out junior year.
Gretschel: When I was a freshman, the Sinclairs just seemed to be an elite league of their own. For some reason, though, I figured I would be able to run with them eventually, just due to natural progression. Well, natural progression didn't really happen after freshman year - I didn't PR at all as a sophomore. It was probably due to a number of reasons but mostly because I was more interested in socializing than actually working hard at practice.
I frustrated myself a lot though, because I never put in enough effort at practice but I always expected good results in races. And then in the spring, for some reason, I decided to try long jump, and of course after I landed funny at a "practice meet" (not even a real meet), I kept getting weird back spasms and it turned out I had scoliosis. Which was miraculously cured almost as quickly as it was diagnosed. But then that summer, I got mono, which as you already know, was the worst experience of my life.
So heading into junior year XC, I was in the worst shape of my life and sort of wondering why I had wasted so much time doing something I wasn't even trying to be good at. That's when I really buckled down and got serious about running and competing. And from there, I just kept improving. My initial goal was to run a 5:30 by the County B meet in May. Instead, I ran a 5:12 that season and qualified for states - which had always been my secret goal so I could get a sweet t-shirt (although of course they sold out of shirts when I tried to buy one).
But even though I had improved significantly by outdoor last year, the Sinclairs still held this weird mental block over me. I had this image of them in my mind as being so untouchable that oftentimes, I wouldn't even try to run with them in races - I was always in the pack behind them. However, I am proud to say that I beat both of them in races before they graduated. I highly respect what they accomplished during high school, I don't think any other runners have maintained the same level of dominance over the county for four years straight as they did and definitely no runners from Blair have ever done so.
MoCoRunning: There are plenty of girls who get stuck in a rut in high school and never get much better. I think you are the ultimate proof that girls can improve tremendously. What is your secret?
Gretschel: In order to get optimal results at meets, you have to put everything you've got into your workouts. It wasn't until last year that I really figured out how to push myself. Once I stopped being too scared to give running my all, I was really able to just lay it all on the line at practice and that's what has translated to my drastic improvement over the past couple years. I used to be really mental before races and too scared to run hard because I thought I would burn out or die and get last, though this thought wasn't totally unwarranted because that definitely happened to me a couple times freshman year. But once you get over yourself and realize that you're the only one holding yourself back, you'll see improvement. I dedicate the same effort to the extra stuff too: drills, strides, strengthening exercises, it's all important. Some of it doesn't always make sense (arm and full body wrestling matches are a fav on our team) but that's where blind belief in your coach's system comes in.
MoCoRunning: So far this season you have laid low, only running relay meets and dual meets. This might make you a dangerous underdog for these upcoming championship meets. Do you have any goals that you are trying to accomplish that you are willing to share?
Gretschel: I love goals! I make a lot of them. I like meeting them. I would love to tell you all of them, but how stupid would I look if none of them came true in the next few weeks? I will say that I would like to qualify for states in the 1600, 800 and 4x4. Watch out for that relay - our boys aren't the only Blazers who can run a 400 (love you ladies!). PRing is also always nice.
MoCoRunning: Despite losing the Sinclair sisters to graduation, your cross country and track teams are still doing relatively well. What are some of the things that you do to build up the team and keep team spirits high?
Gretschel: Last year over the summer, my fellow XC co-captains (Christina "Boy Scout" Mullen, Frank "Meow" lou-Wen and Vijay "Facial Hair Day" Baharani) and I were pretty freaked out that Blair wouldn't have a team anymore after '08 graduated so we did some major recruiting and planning for fun stuff so people would stay on the team. I do believe we succeeded! Obviously, the Sinclairs are tough to replace but I think we have a much more well-rounded team on the girls side than in years past.
During XC, our team got really into freestyling and having rap battles. Most of us just rhymed "face" with "mace" (…ok, that was me) and talked about frying different kinds of meat (Louise "Jelly Sandwich" Gretschel), but our Official XC MC is Peter "Briefcase" Myers. His talent is a shining beacon of inspiration to us all and freshman Gabe "Biceps" Pollak will likely inherit his throne.
We had a lot of unusual traditions in cross country this year…like "frying" people by throwing something in their face. So if you shove a brownie in someone's face, you yell "You just got brownie-fried!" Yes, this actually happened - to someone's face and someone's car. If you ever get stuck with 3-week-old brownies engulfing your car, just ask Lucas "Spooky Lukey" Alvaradomexicano-Farrar how to get it off. That actually evolved into our current prank war between the freshman and upperclassmen. We still have to get them back for frying us (and our cars) with whipped cream, but don't worry, it's coming. Our other major obsession was (and still is) bhangra dance parties - if you think Rutvij "Lightning Bolt" Pandya is a beast runner, just check him on that dance floor.
For track, we have lots of delicious picnics and a capture the flag game that needs to be rescheduled! Also, laser tag is so happening before the end of the season. It's really easy to get mentally burned out on running during the work-out grind so I'm glad I have such a crazy team to keep things light and funny and well, for lack of better word, interesting. Of course, when things get really dull, it's nice to have our personal model to look at - that would be Gregorio Cortez, also known as G.Vogue.
MoCoRunning: I think you might be the #1 fan of the Blair boys team. What has it been like to watch them develop from mediocrity into the dominant sprinting team in Montgomery County?
Gretschel: I love the boys team, they are amazing! All of their races are exciting to watch and cheer for, but my fav has got to be the 4x4. They are really inspirational because they have worked their butts off to get where they are now. Blair has really not been a sports school at all since the 60s and for them to be so successful on the state level is really exciting. They are a great group of guys and truly deserve everything they've accomplished. It was really exciting last year because I was improving a lot just as they were beginning to make a mark for themselves on the county level and I like to think that we've all helped spark what should be a legacy of track excellence at Blair.
MoCoRunning: Those boys don't let it go to their heads, do they?
Gretschel: Let me introduce you to Mohamad "Usher" Mansaray at the next meet and then you can ask me this question again.
MoCoRunning: Besides distance running, do you have any other hobbies or habits that your future college roomate is going to find very unusual?
Gretschel: Well, I do have an odd affinity for midnight squirrel-hunting, seagull noises (I blame Amina "Freek-a-leek" Goheer), gyrating, creating bread sandwiches (tortilla, whole grain, hamburger, cinnamon raisin, potatoe and rye breads in between two pieces of white bread), speaking in a British accent, eating an abnormal amount of Pop Tarts and studying. Don't worry, the last one's a joke.