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By René Ferrán 

Let me tell you about this junior sprinting phenom at Lake Oswego High School. 

She’s among the all-time state leaders in two events and recently picked up a third, in which she took over the state lead in just her second time running the event.

On Friday, she anchored the Lakers’ 4x400-meter relay team to a state record, running a 53-second leg to complete the race in 3 minutes, 49.83 seconds, to break a 20-year-old record.

Her name is Josie Donelson, and … 

Oh, you thought I meant that other supernova sprinter on the Lakers? 

While Mia Brahe-Pedersen shines in the national spotlight she’s earned, Donelson has built a resumé that puts her among the state’s all-time bests.

Her winning time of 54.68 seconds in the 400 meters at the Summit Invitational this month moved her to a tie for fifth on the all-time state list and is the fastest in the state in the past 14 years.

She also ranks in the top 20 all-time in the 200, but her coaches think her future could lie in the 300 hurdles — and eventually the 400 hurdles when she heads to college.

“She would be the star of a team,” said Lakers coach John Parks, who helped train world champion 400-meter hurdler and Olympic silver medalist Samuel Matete when both were at Auburn University three decades ago.

“She’s a tremendously untapped talent. I see the potential. She has the opportunity to be an elite hurdler and running it excellently in college.” 

Josie Donelson 45 Rene Ferran

Before Parks could begin tapping that hurdling potential, though, he had to persuade Donelson and her mother, Melissa Kopple, to give it a go.

Donelson didn’t take much convincing.

“I have the flexibility for it, and my coach and I know that I do well in that kind of mid-distance range,” she explained. “So, we were just like, you know, let’s give it a shot and just see what I can do.”

Mom, though, took a little more convincing, Parks said, but after some initial reluctance, he got the go-ahead to begin training Donelson for the event in mid-April.

She ran the 300 hurdles for the first time at a Three Rivers League home meet April 28, winning in a pedestrian 48.47 seconds. A week later, she ran at another TRL meet at Lakeridge, winning in 45.10 — the state’s top time at that point in the season and within two-tenths of a second of the school record.

Last week at the TRL district championships was the first time Donelson ran the 400 and the 300 hurdles at the same meet. She cruised to victory in the 400 in 55.09, and she finished second in the hurdles to West Linn’s Savannah Johnson, who took over the state lead in 44.85 to Donelson’s 45.35.

“Savannah is an experienced hurdler, and you knew that she was going to run her best and put pressure on Josie to have to hit the hurdles just right,” Parks said. “And she was a little bit tentative for the first hurdle. We might need to back her off a touch just to get to the first hurdle, and then she sets the rhythm for the race.

“But she’s done two hours of work on this event. That’s the thing. You’re frustrated, but you’re also knowing that trying to train the way we have to with the 400, the relays, all these things you’ve got to do, and to run that fast with that many flaws ... I’m confident that we will sort it out. We’ll get three hours of work for her at least this week, if not more, and she’ll have the rhythm back down.”

There’s no such concerns for Donelson in the 400, in which she has been the dominant force in the state the past two seasons. She hasn’t lost to an in-state rival since the 6A culminating-week meet at the end of her freshman season.

Last season, she broke 56 seconds for the first time in the OSAA 6A state final, holding off Central Catholic’s Lakely Doht-Barron to win in 55.71.

This year, she has another rival in Newberg freshman Sophia Castaneda, who went 55.12 to finish just behind Donelson at the Summit Invitational. The duo could put on another thrilling duel this week at the OSAA state championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, where Sasha Spencer’s all-time state best of 53.93 set 26 years ago for North Salem could be in jeopardy.

“She’s got that dialed in pretty good,” Parks said. “She went out a little slow (Friday), but she was trying to be a little conservative with the hurdles coming up and just trying to be fresh. She’s on pace to run low 53s by the end of her career, if not faster.”

Positively dominant: Donelson ‘brings a good energy to the team’

While Donelson has all the physical attributes to be an elite runner, another critical factor in her success has been her positive mentality.

“I’ve been saying since my wee days back as a youngster running track, such a big part of this sport is your mentality,” Donelson said. “That’s like almost everything.

“So, with that in mind, I just really try to bring that to every day, especially when I’m out there running in the final stretch of the 400 and the final stretch of the hurdles. The biggest thing is trying to keep confidence in myself, trust in myself, my training, my body and everything. So, yeah, positivity is definitely a big part of that.”

That approach rubs off on her teammates, who can’t help but be buoyed when Donelson is around.

“She’s always really positive and brings a good energy to the team,” Brahe-Pedersen said. “I think you could probably ask anyone on the team, whether or not they train with us — the distance runners, the throwers. Everyone would say that she just brings a different kind of positivity to the team.

“She’s a great training partner because we kind of meet in the middle for our distances in training, and she’s just very motivational. She kind of brings that (positivity) out of me more, because I tend to dwell a little bit more. I’ll be like, ‘This workout kind of sucks,’ but she’s always the first person to say, ‘Hey, let’s get this done.’ So, we balance each other out, I think.”

Josie Donelson after 4x4 Rene Ferran

Brahe-Pedersen also sees a quiet confidence in her teammate.

“She is a very unique athlete,” she said. “Like, she’ll be nervous, but she’ll never let it show. She’s just always very composed. When you watch her run, all she does is execute, and it’s really inspiring. 

“I mean, I’ve kind of been through a lot of what she’s going through now, so I know what’s ahead for her if she continues on this trajectory. So, I’m really excited for her. She’s already one of the best on the West Coast, and I’m just waiting to see when she’s winning national titles, because I know that’s going to be in her future.”

It’s a future Donelson’s mother foresaw shortly after the two moved to the Portland area from New York City in 2014, when Josie was in second grade.

“My mom always tells me the story that when I was super young, she saw me and was like, ‘Wow, that girl’s fast!’” Donelson said.

Donelson tried soccer and karate, but neither sport stuck. Once Kopple signed her up for the Bowerman Track Club in fifth grade — first as a cross country runner (last fall’s 6A state champion, Ana Peters, was her club teammate) before quickly transitioning to sprinting with the Tigard Youth Track Club — ‘it’s where I found my groove,’ Donelson said.

She started her career as a short sprinter, but as Donelson put it, “Mother knows best, because she was like, ‘Let’s put her in this 400.’ Before then, I was a 1-2 girl, running the 100, 200, doing my relays. And then, all of a sudden, I ran the 400 and died at the end because I sprinted — you know, rookie mistake.”

Despite that “rookie mistake,” after that one race, she was hooked. She won USATF state and regional titles in the 400 as a sixth-grader and state again as a seventh-grader before moving to Mississippi to live with her father, Anthony, and half-brother, Levi, for a year.

She returned to Oregon in August 2020 before the start of her freshman year, but she and her dad remain close. Her first phone call after setting the state relay record at district was to him.

“He’s just been really supportive through all this, always sending me good messages, talking every day,” she said. “Especially when I’m tired from running, I can always count on him to really push me forward. Both my parents are really awesome with that.”

Faster times mean expanding horizons on recruiting front

As Donelson’s junior season winds down, her recruiting is starting to heat up. She’s made a visit to the University of Utah, and as she continues shaving time off her personal bests in the 400 and 300 hurdles, her options will expand.

She wants to pursue a law degree and lately finds herself gravitating toward subjects such as history and constitutional law, so that will influence her college decision.

“It’s going to be about improving and building those relationships, especially because I really have lived all over,” she said. “It’s awesome, because I’ve been exposed to so many different cultures. So, that’s also something I’ll take into account when it comes to my recruiting process.” 

Josie Donelson 2 Rene Ferran

And if she hits the marks Parks believes she’s capable of achieving, that recruiting process could blow up really quickly.

“We’re looking to get the state record eventually for her in the 400,” he said. “It might not happen at state, because you’re running around, doing all this stuff, but she’s on pace. My goal is for a sub-53 by next year and to get the state record in the 300 hurdles by next year.

“What’s exciting is knowing that when you look at an athlete, you say, ‘Oh, they’re not doing this, not doing that.’ She’s still a neophyte when it comes to lifting weights. When she gets her strength levels up from lifting, she’s liable to see a dramatic improvement.

“So, it’s like she’s starting to put it all together, and her confidence will grow from that. And that gives her more confidence when she gets in a race to be a little more aggressive, and the 400 will come even faster.”