North Branch native enters senior season as an All-American

Despite injuries, Johnson is ready to go

Chelsea Johnson
Chelsea Johnson

As a freshman at St. Scholastica, North Branch native Chelsea Johnson’s collegiate cross-country highlights included a personal-best time of 25:06 in the 6K, and placing 20th at the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championship meet.

Her sophomore year, Johnson took third at the UMAC championship and recorded a personal-best 23:51 at the NCAA Central Region championships.

The nursing major wanted more in her cross-country career. Johnson sat down and began having weekly meetings throughout the year with her head coach, Steve Pfingsten.

“Chelsea is strongly motivated to excel,” Pfingsten said. “She shows that in the degree to which she makes challenging goals and is more than willing to work with me to develop those goals — she does not want to leave any stone unturned in her pursuit of excellence.”

So Johnson set a new goal: Qualify for the Division III National Championships.

She started her junior season strong by taking first place the Tom Barry Invitational at St. Norbert College. It was the first individual title for the Saints since 2008, and in the feat, Johnson beat Magan O’Grady of Carroll University (Wisconsin) by 10 seconds. O’Grady was a national qualifier the previous season.

Chelsea Johnson runs about 80 miles a week to stay in top form for competitions.  Photo supplied
Chelsea Johnson runs about 80 miles a week to stay in top form for competitions.
Photo supplied

By late October, the Saint shaved more than two minutes off of her best time at the UMAC championship with a time of 21:47, good for second place. Two weeks later at the NCAA Central Region championships in Northfield, she qualified for the Division III National Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., where she not only competed, but earned All-American honors by placing 15th with a new personal-best time of 21:30.

“It was awesome,” Johnson said. “My parents drove down, and they are super supportive of my running, plus I was able to bring a friend and teammate, Bre Adams, so that was exciting. Throughout the race, I was 17th and said to myself ‘OK, just two more to be in the top 15, I have to push it now or really regret it.’ It was a terrible feeling that last mile, but I wanted it so bad.”

When Johnson met her goal last season, Pfingsten said she immediately adjusted to make another goal, a more challenging goal. But it would have to wait.

All of her hard training, including increasing running from 50 miles per week to 80-90, took a toll on her body. She suffered minor, but debilitating injuries in numerous areas that kept her from running.

“I started biking after I couldn’t run, but then my IT band would tighten up — after awhile, even walking hurt,” Johnson said. “I was pretty down. At first it was OK, but things just kept getting worse. It was hard mentally and I was kind of depressed, but just kept telling myself, ‘This is my body’s way of saying I needed a break.’”

She focused on core strength through the winter, then again when she bruised her heel in the steeplechase for track and field in the spring, which sidelined her for another six weeks.

This summer, Johnson returned home to North Branch to work as assistant supervisor at the Kid’s Club and to train to compete in her third Chisago Lakes Triathlon on July 28. She placed second in her age group, her second top-5 finish at the event.

Johnson will head back to St. Scholastica to continue training for her senior year in cross-country with a new goal: Finish in the top-5 at the Division III National Championships in Indianola, Ind., this fall.

Pfingsten said despite her previous injuries, it is attainable.

“She has a high degree of self discipline in carrying out her training in practice and on her own time,” Pfingsten said. “(The) racing and the training it takes is often painful, but Chelsea is unyielding, persevering and tenacious in her pursuit.”

Johnson is back to running about 80 miles a week and said she feels prepared for her final collegiate season.

“My mileage is already where it was at the end of last summer,” Johnson said. “I want it way more than last year, and I’m more determined than ever. I’m ready to go.”

Johnson debuts her senior season at the Tom Barry Invitational on Saturday, Aug. 31. To follow her results, visit


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