Math Major Goes the Distance on the Course and in Class
By Grant Martin
A love of mathematics may have helped place Rhiannon Johns outside the mainstream in high school, but it was a passion for distance running—in the harsh Canadian winters, no less—that truly established her as an outsider. So when the Ontario native moved 1,000 miles south for her freshman year at UAB, she didn’t experience the culture shock one might expect for an international student in Birmingham.
“My freshman year was the first time I had been a part of a group that shared my passion for running,” says Johns, now a senior on the Blazer cross country and track teams. “When I’m with the team, I’m part of a group that wants to be doing something that might be considered a little crazy. When I’m at home running through a blizzard, I’m just crazy by myself.”
At UAB, Johns has found more than just a sense of community. She has found success—both athletically and academically. It is a validation of sorts for a runner who says her pre-college resume left something to be desired. “I came from a really small town where there wasn’t a lot of competition,” she says. “Even though I won a lot of races, I didn’t run particularly fast.”
Despite that lack of distinction, Johns still had hopes of competing at the NCAA’s highest level. When academic and athletic aspirations are on the same plane, however, she says the choices are somewhat limited. “I sent e-mails to a short list of Division I schools,” she says. “(Former UAB coach) Ray Stanfield took an interest in my ACT scores more than my running times. I think he realized that training through Canadian winters wasn’t ideal, so there was potential for improvement.”
The gamble paid off almost immediately, as Johns quickly became a team leader, earning All-America honors as a senior, becoming a two-time Conference USA champion in the 10,000 meters, and setting school records in the 1,500 meters (4:28:59) and 5,000 meters (16:13:32). All the while, she maintained a 4.0 GPA as a math major, earning spots on the Conference USA All-Academic teams her junior and senior years.
Johns is working toward a career in actuarial science, which involves calculating risks and probabilities for insurance companies. While she sees few links between her athletic and academic passions, they do share one key requirement—discipline. “I know if I can push myself through a 20-mile run, I can draw on that strength to tackle any challenge.”