Coaching legend prepares Olympic hopefuls

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – You can pick him out from across the vast infield by simply looking for the beige straw hat – an iconic image in the elite world of track and field that flourishes here in the distant corner of a far different world, Disney.

He sits in a metal folding chair, his gaze fixed on some of the most promising sprinters and hurdlers on the planet as they sweat through another morning practice session hoping to make their Olympic dreams come true.

A gentle breeze blows on this blue cloudless morning – the kind of picture-perfect weather you’d expect at the land of make believe,  the kind that has drawn top European sprinters, hurdlers and long jumpers to train here at the Wide World of Sports Complex alongside standout U.S. athletes.

But the balmy weather is hardly all that attracts the talented contingent of Olympic hopefuls for the 2012 London Games to be held July 27-Aug. 12.

They are here to learn from a legend, a fixture in the sport who worked with his first sprinter in the 1960 Rome Games and has coached athletes in every Olympiad since Mexico City in 1968.    

Brooks Johnson rises from his chair and moves closer to the track, where a group of sprinters have just blazed across the finish line. “Beautiful, good job!” he yells. Moments later, he sees something in another athlete that needs tweaking. “C’mon, David – you’re getting marshmallow feet,” he exhorts. “Relax your shoulders. Work from down low.”

Johnson can talk bluntly to David Payne, the reigning silver medalist in the 110-meter high hurdles from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His list of accomplished athletes also includes David Oliver, who finished just behind Payne for the bronze in Beijing and is the American record-holder in the event and a four-time U.S. champion.

I’ve watched Johnson from his familiar perch over the past five years, observing and exhorting the cadre of world-class athletes who have sought out his magic touch in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom. In a gravelly voice, he exudes a sense of subdued wisdom when he talks about the sport and his longevity in it.

“The secret,” he says, “is thinking young and thinking progressive. You always want to grow, because this sport is constantly growing. You have to stay on top of the science of what’s going on. So the biggest thing is to stay mentally active.”

At 77, Johnson shows no signs of slowing down in the world of speed that has surrounded him for more than a half century. Wearing a polo shirt and jeans, the old coach still has a lean, athletic look himself and has no problem keeping up with influx of youthful talent, even when the noon sun begins to beat down on the state-of-the-art track and field complex.

As practice winds to a close, a dozen hurdlers gather around Johnson, sitting on the manicured infield grass as he takes his seat. The scene resembles an informal college seminar, with students soaking up their professor’s insights. “The definition of acceleration is what? It’s when your lead leg passes your trail leg faster than your trail leg passes your lead leg.”

It’s no surprise that Johnson has the air of a seasoned educator, given his belief in the importance of academics in sports. Shortly after his drained athletes pack their training gear and head to their cars, we sit down by the edge of the track to talk.

“The real thing I think a lot of people miss is that there’s a natural connection between superior academics and superior athletes,” he says. “Because in both cases, you have to be able to make very subtle and textured decisions.”

School and sports were always big parts of Johnson’s own life. He was born in Miami, the son of a father who shined shoes and a mother who worked as a housemaid. When he was a young child, his family moved north to Plymouth, Mass., where he excelled academically and athletically. He went on to attend prestigious Tufts University in Boston, giving up his aspirations to play basketball and shifting  his focus instead to track.

After graduating, Johnson earned his law degree at the University of Chicago, leading to a job in the State Department’s Governmental Affairs Institute.

But the place that truly led him onto his life’s journey was St. Alban’s School, an Episcopalian-based private preparatory institution in Northwest Washington, D.C. It was 1965, a time of simmering racial tension in the country.  Three years before the riots that would sweep through Washington, Johnson was working as a community organizer in the predominantly black Adams-Morgan section.

He had already established his coaching credentials five years earlier working with 110-meter hurdler Olympic Willie May, who won the silver medal in Rome.  So Johnson noticed with interest, and some dismay, that the heavily white prep school bordering Adams-Morgan had no minority coaches on the athletic staff.

He took it upon himself to visit the school’s headmaster and raise the issue. “I said, ‘You have this virtually all-white school in what was then this black part of the city. So how do you guys justify that?’ ” he said. “Basically, the headmaster said to me, ‘Look, anybody can find fault and anybody can be critical. When you have a solution, you need to come back and talk to me.’ ”

Johnson left the meeting, turning over the words in his head. He brought up the conversation to a trusted friend in circle of community organizers.

“She was the matriarch of Adams-Morgan, a lady named Miss Jackson,” he recalled. “I told her what happened and she said, ‘Fool, you need to go back and tell him that you’re the solution. So, you listen to black matriarchs and do what the hell they tell you to do. I went back up there and said, ‘Hey, I’m the solution.’ And he hired me on the spot as assistant track coach.”

Johnson’s work at the school soon encompassed more than track and serving as assistant football coach. He taught cultural anthropology and history, with required reading ranging from Plato’s Republic to Malcolm X.

He also helped initiate a program to integrate St. Alban’s with students from the inner city, personally recruiting students he thought would handle the challenge.

“I said to the headmaster, ‘We need to bring in kids who are deserving of this kind of education, because it gives you a leg up,’ so he let me form what we called ‘The Risk Program.’ The school was taking a risk by taking kids from the inner city and those kids were taking a risk because they were entering a highly competitive academic environment. We wanted kids with very good backgrounds who were also very competitive, so they could compete academically. I’m proud to say that program is still going on today.”

Johnson enjoyed his formative experience in the decade-plus he spent at St. Alban’s – among his students, a young discus thrower who would one day throw his hat in the ring and become a U.S. Senator and Vice President: Al Gore. Throughout his tenure, he continued to build his national coaching credentials in the sport.  In 1968, he coached a 15-year-old from a D.C. neighborhood track club –Esther Stroy– all the way to a spot on the Olympic team and a trip to Mexico City.

When the Munich Olympics rolled around in 1972, Johnson was back again, coaching female hurdler Lacey O’Neal in her second Olympics and a handful of other athletes.  For the Montreal Games in 1976, he became an official U.S. Olympic staff member. By then, Johnson had moved on from St. Alban’s – and moved up to the ranks of college coaching, becoming assistant track coach at the University of Florida in 1975.

That led to his next big opportunity, taking over as head track coach of Stanford University in 1979 – working with future Olympian PattiSue Plumer, a one-time American record-holder in the 5,000 meters, and U.S. distance standout Ceci Hopp St. Geme.  In addition, serving as the 1984 U.S. Women’s Olympic track head coach,
Johnson guided Chandra Cheeseborough to a pair of gold medals in the 4×100 and 4×400 relays (the first woman to win both relays) as well as silver in the 400 meters at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Another one of his athletes, Evelyn Ashford took gold in the 100-meters in LA, followed by a silver medal in the event four years later in Seoul and 1992 gold medal in Barcelona.

After 14 years at Stanford, he coached collegiately from 1993-96 at Cal Polytechnic State before a new door opened – leading him back to Florida. In 1997, Disney World unveiled its newest attraction, the sprawling Wide World of Sports Complex that would play host to all manner of youth, AAU and professional sporting events. The new operation needed a high-profile, veteran coach to oversee the track and field program at Disney – someone who could attract world-class athletes to the venue.

Johnson was a perfect fit – and he’s been on the job ever since. Along the way, he’s been inducted into the U.S. Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame, served as director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center, acted as chair of the High Performance Division for USA Track & Field and been named Nike Coach of the Year in 2010.

And he’s coached countless track stars who seek him out at Disney – including 2004 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist Justin Gatlin, formerly the fastest man in the world; 2008 Olympic hurdler Tiffany Williams, considered a strong medal contender in London; and record-shattering 110-meter hurdler Oliver.

The U.S. had gone through a seven-year drought without a 110 hurdles World ranking until Johnson coached Oliver to No. 1 two years ago, going unbeaten in 15 races that saw him tie and then set the American record in the race. Johnson isn’t interested in taking any personal credit. He prefers that the spotlight shine on the athletes, who deal with the pressures of training and competition.

“There’s no pressure on me because I don’t compete,” he said. “What I do is an opportunity and maybe a challenge, but not pressure.”

Johnson is known for pushing his athletes relentlessly, a meticulous attention to detail in training and technique, and a blunt, no-nonsense approach. But he commands respect and builds bonds, such as the one he shares with Oliver.

“Coach Johnson is very special,” Oliver once told me. “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 is held in high regard by his European guests at Disney, including German national track team coach Idriss Gonschinska, who brought his athletes to train in the warmth of Florida and the presence of a man who means so much to track and field.

“In his own way, he IS track and field,” Gonschinska says. “He has such great experience and knows how to relate to the young athletes. He has the scientific way of language and the kids’ language. It’s like he’s a 45-year-old coach. For me, that’s what makes him so special – his knowledge, his experience and the way he treats athletes.”

Still, the teacher insists he is often the one getting taught by them.

“Oh yes, clearly, because you’re evaluating all the time,” he says. “This is a big laboratory. It never gets old or boring. You’re with young people and they’re passionate. I’m just very fortunate.”

Moments later, Johnson excuses himself to get back to the job he cherishes – with a world of insight into sports and life swirling beneath the old straw hat.