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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Q&A with Olympic sprint coach Brooks Johnson
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008
Brooks Johnson, left, explaining technique with David Oliver and Joel Brown, right, at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex.
[Special to the Times]
Brooks Johnson first coached an Olympian in 1960 and has done so at every Summer Games since 1968.
[Special to the Times]
David Oliver, right, is a two-time NCAA All-American and finished third at the U.S. Outdoor Championships in 2007.
[Special to the Times]
Brooks Johnson demonstrates technique to Joel Brown, left, the 2005 U.S. Indoor champion in the 110-meter hurdles.
[Special to the Times]
John Capel sprinting to the finish line at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex. Capel, a former Florida Gator and Hernando High star, made the 2000 Olympic team in the 200.
LAKE BUENA VISTA - At first glance, it might be easy to miss the man in the wide-brimmed straw hat in a foldout chair perched by the edge of the track at Disney's Wide World of Sports.
The view at the far end of the massive athletic complex is dominated by muscular men and women - world-class hurdlers and sprinters - stretching and darting up and down the lanes to warm up for one more practice.
But there in his chair, Brooks Johnson keeps his eyes fixed on his performers. He knows each of their styles, what bad habits to correct, what techniques to tweak and what words he should muster to motivate them.
After all, the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Famer has been coaching at the Olympic level for nearly a half-century. He worked with his first Olympian in 1960, 110-meter hurdles silver medalist Willie May, and has coached an athlete at every Olympics since 1968. They include stars such as Evelyn Ashford and Chandra Cheesborough as coach of the women's team for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
These days, Johnson, 73, is hard at work with his wise, low-key style at Disney, trying to help the Olympic dreams of some of America’s speediest runners come true this summer in China. He has made Wide World of Sports his base for most of the past 12 years — other than two years spent opening up the Olympic Training Center in 2003-04. Not surprisingly, he is regarded as a guru of the national track and field scene — and those who have trained with him count themselves lucky.
"Coach Johnson is very special," said David Oliver, one of the country’s top 110-meter hurdlers. "First of all, he has a thorough knowledge of every event in track and field. He’s been around so long, he knows exactly what to look for — who to do and not to do.
"But just on a personal level, he’s taught me so much about life. I didn’t really have a great connection with my father, so he’s the first male who’s taught me and molded me to be a man and a professional athlete. He tells you everything straight-up, no sugar coating. He’s elevated my career to heights I never thought were possible."
Johnson was a standout high school track man in Plymouth, Mass., but described his competitive career at Division III Tufts University in Boston as having more "lowlights than highlights." After graduating, he earned a law degree from the University of Chicago but didn’t practice. Instead he joined the State Department, working for the Governmental Affairs Institute.
All the while, he found time to coach — from top-tier national athletes to high school competitors at St. Alban’s in Washington, including an impressive young discus thrower named Al Gore.
We sat down with Johnson recently to ask him about some of his top prospects for '08, the woes of disgraced former Olympian Marion Jones and the state of the sport with the Beijing Games set to open Aug. 8.
How do you feel about this year's group and how things are coming together?
On a national team basis, there's a fantastic group of young, talented athletes; people like John Capel, Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon. I suspect we'll be as strong as we have ever been in the sprints.
What is your challenge each Olympic year?
As a coach, it's to help the ones who have the ability and the focus and the talent to make the team. But on a national level, I'm what's called the Chair of the High Performance Division (in track and field). And that is mandated and charged to increase our medal count. And when we took over, the U.S. was averaging between 19 and 20 medals. It's now up to 25-26 medals. And we're expected to get between 27-30 in Beijing.
Is there pressure with those expectations?
If we don't get the medals, you have one person to blame.
How do you feel about that?
I knew what I was getting into, so I just think it's a doable challenge.
Does it bother you that most people don't know who you are?
The loneliest thing in the world is when an athlete is in that holding pen just before you go into the stadium; maybe 60,000 people are watching from the stands and millions are watching on television. My point is that the athletes ultimately have to do it, so no coach can come up and take credit for that. Coaches should remain in the background as support and resource people. And the athletes who are going out under that kind of stress and pressure should get the recognition.
Does the crackdown on illegal substances mean that we'll see slower times or less impressive performances?
No, at some point even a dirty world record will be exceeded by somebody who's clean.
What are you thoughts on Marion Jones?
I don't think people realize the real tragedy of Marion Jones. There are certain people who have star power within their sport. And when they retire, that goes with them. And there are some people who transcend the superstar status within their sport and become celebrities. Marion Jones had that quality about her, and she could have done it clean. She could have gotten enough medals clean that would have put her in the public spotlight, and she could have used that to catapult herself into celebrity status. She has a gift. So the tragedy is that it was so unnecessary.
What is the state of track and field today?
People make a big deal about the drugs, as they should. We should do it for the reason that it's illegal, it's unethical and it's unhealthy. So you should be concerned for drugs because it's unhealthy. But the sport is as strong as ever.
What got you into coaching?
To be honest about it, I think it's competing vicariously; the competitive spirit. Plus, you don't need somebody to pass you the ball or throw a block to do well in track and field. At the last world championships, the 100 meters for women was determined by a thousandth of a second, so success is determined by as objective a measure as you can get. It has nothing to do with degree of difficulty or whether the Russian judge and the French judge colluded or whatever. Plus, it's the original sport.
What's the one thing you're thinking about looking ahead to China?
Just that this is going to be the most competitive Olympics of all time, basically because there are more counties that can medal, the climate and culture will be different than anything we've encountered before. And the Chinese and Asian nations are not going to willingly lose face. It's going to be great.
Three of Johnson's standout pupils
David Oliver, 25, 110-meter hurdles, personal-best 13.14 seconds, two-time NCAA All-American, third at the U.S. Outdoor Championships in 2007 (13.18 seconds), enjoyed a stellar 2006, marked by a victory at the Berlin ISTAF Golden League meet with a time of 13.25 seconds, beating many of the world's top hurdlers.
Comment: "This is my fourth year down here training with Brooks and this is just the most talented group of people and training partners that I’ve ever been a part of. We have to see what happens at the Olympic trials, a lot can happen between now and then, but as of now I feel my name has to be right up there at the top of the list in the 110-hurdlers for making the top three, and then make a push for the Olympics."
Joel Brown, 27, 110-meter hurdles, personal-best 13.22 seconds, 2005 U.S. Indoor champion, fourth at the 2005 USA Outdoor Championships, two-time Big Ten outdoor champ and was ranked No. 6 in the world, best time in 2007 was 13.31.
Comment: "I just moved down to Florida and this my first year training with Coach Johnson, after three years of training at Ohio State in the college system. It’s going well here, and he told me he’s pleased with my progress. This has been a great experience. I’ve learned a lot of new things, because Coach Johnson teaches you the science of the sport — he breaks everything down so you can understand it, and learn why you’re doing the things you do out there. A lot of times, when people run fast times, they don’t how they actually did it. But Coach Johnson explains it to you, and that’s been a huge help to me. We have three hurdlers here who could all make the final three: me, David and Aubrey Herring. That would be a thrill."
John Capel, 29, sprinter, personal-best 9.95 seconds in the 100 meters and 19.95 in the 200, former Florida Gator and Hernando High star made the 2000 Olympic team in the 200 behind Michael Johnson (finishing eighth in Sydney after a poor start out of the blocks), left the sport for two years to pursue an NFL career, returned to track and became the 2003 world indoor champ in the 200 meters, ranked No 1 in the world in both the 100 and 200 by Track and Field News, won the bronze medal in the 2005 World Outdoor Championships.
Comment: "With the way things are going with Coach Brooks, I think I have a better shot than I did in past Olympic trials. He’s been teaching me to maintain momentum and try to make up more time at the end at the race. As a person, he’s like the kind of uncle I never had. He’s seen the ups and downs of the sport, and being around somebody like that is going to help you succeed, as long as you buy into the plan. … And he’s gotten me to the point where I’ve finally let my bad start in the 2000 Olympics go. It was hard to make a mistake on the world stage. He stresses that the past doesn’t matter. And the way things are going right now, I’m going to China. I don’t see a whole lot of people beating me unless I make a lot of bad decisions."