Running code and running track: This intern is also one of the country's top collegiate athletes
“In through the nose, out through the mouth,” he thinks as he runs through the 90 F Virginia heat in the off-season. He puts mile after mile on his well-loved shoes, totaling nearly 80 miles every week. Derek Johnson is training for his fourth year as a Division I track and field athlete at the University of Virginia (UVA).
This summer—before his final year of college—Johnson joined Leidos as a Software Engineering intern, working on internal research and development for artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) applications. While his career goals include teaching computer science at some point, for now Johnson is enjoying writing code and working on complicated systems. “That’s one of the things that attracted me to Leidos,” he says. “The company affords me the opportunity to work on exciting projects with interesting technologies.”
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For Johnson, the work-life balance aspect of his internship program has been monumental in providing the flexibility to maintain his status as a competitive distance runner. After his fourth-place finish at the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Championships this spring, he continued on to a national platform, competing in the 3,000-meter steeplechase qualifiers in Eugene, Oregon.
Although he narrowly missed his opportunity to race in the world’s largest athletic competition representing the United States, Johnson ultimately prides himself in having had the opportunity, a clear indication of how hard he’s trained over the last several years. “It’s always been an aspiration, like ‘maybe one day after I graduate college, if I keep doing this, I’ll be able to make it’,” he recalls. “I try to stay focused on the race in front of me, so to get to the qualifiers was amazing in and of itself.”
“I actually didn’t run the required time until about an hour before all qualifying results were due,” Johnson continues. “I went to nationals, ran the final race and missed the [qualifying] time by less than a second. My coach found me a last-minute race the following day and that’s when I made my best time…and then the results were due literally that night.”
Taking inspiration from his father, Johnson marvels at what can be achieved by working hard, motivation that carried him through his seven years of cross-country and track and field. In addition, a coincidental gesture of encouragement from a senior member of his UVA team early in the track season was a catalyst for his record-breaking year.
“[My teammate] was going into his final season and got a stress fracture that was going to take him out for basically the whole season. When he got hurt, he said, ‘I really want you to wear these running shoes because that’s the only way they’re going to run at the Trials’,” he says. “So as the season went on and I continued to improve my time, it was always in the back of my head that he really thought I could do it.”
While his competition season and academics are on hiatus this summer, Johnson has been focusing on finding the balance between running and his internship and discovered they work in harmony. “When I feel stuck at work, I can take a break, go for a run and clear my head, then come back. It also works the other way around,” he adds. “When the running isn’t going well or I’m tired, I can focus my energy on my work and it gives me another way to feel confident and energized.”
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