Brian Johnson competes for Southern during a NCAA meet in 2003. (Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 7:32 PMFour years ago, Brian Johnson could not wait for the Olympics to start. This time around, he can’t bring himself to watch.
Johnson, an Iowa native, competed at the 2008 games in Beijing, going out in the preliminary round of the long jump. It was his only trip to track and field’s biggest stage, with his shot in 2004 ruined by a knee injury suffered the year before.
The 2008 performance did not go as planned, but Johnson said he has plenty of fond memories from the trip to China, which ranks among his favorite spots during his professional career.
In 2008, the U.S. Olympic Trials was the event generating the most case of nerves for Johnson, who had already won.
“The U.S. Trials are harder than the Olympics,” he said. “In other countries, they can pick their best athletes so they can peak for the Olympics. For us, we have to peak for the Trials, then try to do it again at the Olympics. The trials are the toughest.”
Johnson punched his ticket to Beijing with a jump of 27 feet, 5 1/2 inches, good for second place.
Next came an anxious five weeks between the Trials and the start of the Olympics.
“I was feeling a lot of anticipation, waiting, wanting get to training camp and waiting on the big day, thinking about how I wanted to execute my jumps,” Johnson said. “I went to London and Rome for meets and then went to training camp.”
The days just before the Games were hard, he said.
“I was nervous for three or four days,” Johnson said. “ I tried to treat it like a regular meet, but that is hard when you are competing for a gold medal.”
With track and field starting a few days after the start of the Games, Johnson was able to march in the opening ceremony.
“I was in the second row. I can’t even remember how I got there,” he said. “I loved it; it was a chance to get to see everyone’s culture. I got to see Yao Ming up close and personal. I was right next to Kobe Bryant. It was nice because I am a big basketball fan. After that we had about three days before I started competition. I went to the basketball games and my wife and son were there with me. There was no more practice so we were able to go out and see China.”
Johnson also took advantage of the offerings in the Olympic Village’s cafeteria.
“The cafeteria was best part. We got to see all the different types of foods they bring in,” he said.
“Everything was free and I tried everything while I was there, things from everybody’s culture. India has really good food; their pasta is good, their brown gravy is different than how we do it, but it was still good.”
Sightseeing was always in Johnson’s plans when he toured the world as a professional.
“Everywhere I went I tried to learn a bit about the culture,” he said.
“During the Olympics I went to the Forbidden City, watched some swimming, some basketball,” he said. “Overall, Shanghai was my favorite place to jump and visit, along with Crete in Greece. Crete had nice blue beaches. After the meets you can go be in water, parasail and jet ski. I like China, period. Just being in that culture, being different. It was fun walking around being 6-foot-5 when the average person was about 5-foot-5.”
Competition day brought mixed emotions for Johnson. His best jump in the preliminary round, 25-6, was not good enough to qualify for the final round.
“It was good and bad,” he said. “ My warm-up was great, I was prepared and was ready to go, but I just did not execute well. I was disappointed in the outcome. But in the big picture, I was one of only three guys from my country to get to go. Overall it was a good experience.”
Johnson competed one more year, highlighted by a ninth-place finish at the 2009 World Championships.
“I took 2010 off, started working at Southern (University) but have not gone back,” said the Jaguars’ head track and field coach. “But I have not filed the retirement papers yet. I have been moving on to watching my kids grow up, being a college coach, trying to get a team together to compete nationally, which has never been done at a black university.
“It has been a humbling experience, going from the top level all the way back down to college. It is different,” he said.
“Now you might not see world-class people. I enjoy game day. After seeing them putting in all that hard work, it is fun to watch them on game day run a little faster, jump a little farther. I have had to learn patience, not everybody is like me. Just because I did it not everybody can do it. My job is to be patient with them and help them become a better jumper or sprinter.”
Letting go of the competition has been hard for Johnson, who won the 2003 NCAA Indoor championship while at Southern, then the 2005 USA Indoor championship and the 2006 indoor and outdoor titles as a professional.
“I miss the adrenaline rush of competing, going out there and giving it my all,” he said. “Believe it or not, I miss practice more than anything. I loved practice, the time to focus and push my body to its limits. I miss getting out there every day and working toward a goal.
“I don’t watch professional track that much. Watch collegiate track, but the pros, it is tough for me to watch. You see your family members out there, people I saw from 2003-09, guys I traveled with every day.
“I kind of take it day by day. My wife says I just need to move on, I should just watch, but it might take some time. When I know I am not able to do it physically any more, it might be easier. I might watch these Olympics, but I don’t know. It is still hard for me.”