When Johnny Van Deventer ’11 was handed the baton at Ivy League Heptagonal Championships last Sunday, he had no idea how fast he was going. Running the last leg of the distance medley relay, the mile, Van Deventer was so focused on the race that he missed his coaches calling out his time.
“The atmosphere was so electric and so loud that I couldn’t hear anything,” Van Deventer said.
Only at the end of the race did Van Deventer discover that he ran the fastest mile in Yale indoor track and field history — 4:02. Had he run at that pace in an individual event, he would have crushed the previous Yale record 4:04.45, held by Rick Wemple ’92 since 1991.
But that was not the only amazing part of Van Deventer’s run — it was the first time Van Deventer had ever competitively run the mile.
What’s more, this is the first season that Van Daventer has participated in since freshman year. He sat out the previous three and a half years due to recurring foot injuries.
“We were ecstatic,” captain Marty Evans ’11 said. “Coaches were jumping. Everyone was celebrating. It came out of nowhere.”
Van Deventer was recruited to run cross country and track and field from England, after placing second in the English Schools Championships. In his freshman year, he exceeded high expectations set for him and performed well for the Bulldogs. But just one race into the outdoor season, he suffered an Achilles injury.
“I’d never properly been injured in my life,” Van Deventer said. “I’d been very lucky.”
Van Deventer called it a “progressive overuse injury,” stemming not from a specific moment in a race but rather a buildup. It developed into something more serious, and Van Deventer stopped competing in hopes it would recover.
“The first race I missed was really tough, and it didn’t get better,” Van Deventer said.
It took six months for Van Deventer to be diagnosed. After following medical advice, including wearing an air boot for half a year that just led to new fractures, Van Deventer chose to take matters into his own hands. He took the fall of his junior year off, spending the semester at home trying to strengthen his fragile muscles.
“I’ve never witnessed a man more intense about anything than Johnny was about regaining his fitness, and running again for Yale,” Matthew Shipsey ’11, a close friend of Van Deventer, said. “It was honestly devastating to watch — he would go to every single meet to cheer on all his best friends and teammates, but it was killing him not being able to compete himself.”
When he rejoined the team in the spring of his junior year, he overdid it again. He fractured other bones in his foot and did not compete for the entire year.
“I’ve spent lots of time watching from the sidelines,” Van Deventer said. “I can’t describe how painful that was and how much inner turmoil that caused me, watching the team for three and a half years and not being able to contribute.”
Fast forward to this indoor season. Knowing that it was his last chance to compete for Yale track and field, Van Deventer invested himself in an intense cross-training regimen, which involved extensive “aqua jogging,” treading water and performing running motions in the deep end of the pool.
“That’s something I’ve gotten to do more than I would have liked,” Van Deventer said.
Van Deventer was committed to competing again. His coaches gave him the green light, and he signed up to run the 1,000-meter at the Giegengack Invitational in early March. Although he had never run that race before, he did not know if he could get through anything longer.
“What happens next, no exaggeration, is fast becoming folklore for all those who know the history,” Shipsey said.
Van Deventer delivered. He ran the 1000-meter in 2:31.00, taking 15th place. The next week he outdid himself, finishing the event in 2:25.64 and placing third. Had he run two-tenths of a second faster, he would have won the race.
At the Heptagonal Championships, Van Deventer was the anchor of the distance medley relay team, the second-to-last race of the meet. He had never run the mile competitively before, so he ran a time trial a week before practice. At that practice, with other teammates pacing him, he finished the mile in 4:14 — meaning that in the competition itself, he cut 12 seconds off his time.
“I’ve definitely been starved of competition for the last three years,” Van Deventer said.
Van Deventer constantly cited the great team dynamic as key to its ultimate success. He followed Julian Sheinbaum ’12, Christopher Ramsey ’13 and James Shirvell ’14. Sheinbaum and Ramsey did not qualify for the finals in the mile and the 800-meter, respectively, so, Van Deventer said, they came into the relay with a point to prove. Shirvell was coming off of a second-place finish in the 1000-meter.
Van Deventer started the mile in fifth place, but he immediately passed two other runners. He ran the first 400 meters in 56 seconds — so fast that his teammates and even his coaches were afraid he would not be able to maintain the strenuous pace. But Van Deventer did not falter, finishing 800 meters in 1:57, which Coach David Shoehalter compared to a “suicide mission.”
“I had so much pent up energy from three and a half years of watching on the sidelines,” Van Deventer said. “From that point on, it was holding on for dear life.”
At this point, his teammates were watching with nervous wonder. With 600 meters left, Shoehalter caught a glimpse of Van Deventer’s face and said that he looked “as determined as I’d ever seen anyone in my career.”
“He really looked like he was completely done, but he dug deeper and found a way to keep going,” Ramsey said.
With about 100 meters to go, Van Deventer heard someone on his tail. It was the runner from Brown. Van Deventer gave it everything he had, and soon discovered that he would catch up to the second place runner for Harvard. Racing to the finish, Van Deventer caught him at the line. The Bulldogs finished second with a time of 9:50.44 (to Harvard’s 9:50.71), giving them the fifth-best time in Heptagonals history and earning the team second team All-Ivy honors.
After the meet, coach Shoehalter sent an e-mail to the men’s track and field team detailing Van Deventer’s painful journey and unbelievable success.
“Yesterday, Johnny was thrust into a situation that so many of us have been in and he handled it with an aplomb and skill that were truly mindboggling,” the e-mail read. “He ran with a confidence that he had no reason to have. He believed. He shocked us all. … When the pressure was at its greatest, in the bubbling cauldron of the armory, Johnny Van Deventer put himself out there with no fear, and the result was legend.”
Van Deventer’s injury has still not completely healed. It has improved, but it still bothers him a lot, he said. While running, Van Deventersaid he was in serious amounts of pain, yet he still pulled out a 4:02 mile.
“I felt that because I was recruited, I had an obligation to the team and that a lot was expected of me,” Van Deventer said. “The time and energy the coaches invest in the program made it impossible for me to turn my back on it.”
With the outdoor season coming up, Van Deventer isn’t sure where he stands. He cannot attend outdoor training with the rest of the team — the facilities do not include a deep enough pool for his aqua jogging — but he plans to take it day by day.
“No one’s happy with our position from indoor Heps,” Van Deventer said. “If I could play a part in contributing in outdoors, that would be really special.”