You might say running is in Nia Ali’s blood. We caught up with the 100m hurdler's mom, Melita Johnson, on her way to Rio with Ali's little boy, Titus. Johnson says she always knew her daughter would be an Olympian. Ali’s unwavering determination that led her to Rio.
Q: Melita, where does Nia get her drive and motivation?
It’s passion for whatever she does. Nia dances too and I used to be a dance teacher. She used to get up out of her seat and just dance. So, whatever she does she goes 100 percent.
Q: A big part of Nia’s track experience was her Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team in Philadelphia. Are you still helping coach the Mallery Challengers?
I also ran there years ago, so a few yeas after Nia started running, the coach asked me if I wanted to coach. I had already been volunteering and so then I began coaching. Both my daughters ran track and I just stuck around to help where I could.
Q: You’ve watched Nia run since she was 6 years old, so how does it feel to be on your way to watch her in the Olympics?
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Being out there in trials was initially scary. I had a lot of anxiety because I know how much she wanted this and I know how hard she worked. From the time she was six years old she would do whatever Coach Daryl Murphy told her to do. She really puts trust in her coaches, so I wanted her to make the team for herself because she works so hard. So when I saw her name on the Olympic trials, I just broke down. It was an amazing feeling.
Q: Nia was sidetracked after losing her dad in a murder-suicide in 2009, while she was running for the University of Southern California. But she came back a stronger, more determined athlete. How?
Her being away at college I didn’t know what her struggle was and she would talk but I couldn’t tell where she was with that entire situation. She is very spiritual and finding God and talking to doctors while she was at school helped her finally worked through it. No one will understand why that happened but we have to keep living and moving forward. We go through those times where I’m sure she wishes he was here and she will say this is for her dad, or my dad. When we lost my dad -- and he was an avid track runner -- it was hard. So we are a track family and she runs for them.
Q: Most people probably don’t know that Nia had a son, Titus. Has he taken any interest in the sport?
He’s 15 months and very active. Titus was here [in Philadelphia] with me for most of the summer and he comes to the track with me. I coach long jump and he will try to do the drills with the runners.
Q: Nia said you always knew she would someday make it to the Olympics. A mother's intuition?
When Nia says she's going to do something, she does it. She said, "I’m going to be bi-coastal in Philly and in LA." Then she became bi-coastal in Philly and LA. When she said she wanted a car she said, "I’m going to get a Range Rover," and then she got a car. When she said she wanted to be an Olympian I believed it. I just knew it.
Q: What else you would like people to know about Nia?
Other parents came up to me after the trails, thanking me because they thought my daughter was such an inspiration. Then Nia actually took the time out to talk to that woman’s daughter. That’s just who she is. She’s always been the type to hang out with anyone or if someone needs help she will take the time out to be there.
Watch Nia’s first heat on August 16 at 10:05 a.m.