The old man in the straw hat sat in the temporary stands next to the track oval, a few rows up, eyeing a half-dozen world-class hurdlers and runners, including the star of the group, Olympic bronze medalist David Oliver. As the athletes went through the morning’s paces, they peered into the stands after every drill, looking for approval.
By the end of practice, Oliver looked sick with exhaustion. After a final sprint of 300 meters, he staggered toward the hurdles he had used during the workout, intending to remove them from the track. Instead, he dropped to his knees, sucking in air, his back heaving. He stole a quick glance at the old man.
“You got a cramp?” Brooks Johnson, 77, bellowed. “Gee-zus Christ. One 300, and we got everybody crippled.”
Oliver has lived through the daily pain, profane commentary and incisive corrections since he came out of Howard University and landed in Johnson’s camp of professional track athletes seven years ago, kicking off a meteoric rise from small-school afterthought to early favorite for the gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2012 Summer Games in London.
Johnson, meantime, has been hunting down, extracting and demanding excellence from various charges, from U.S. Olympians to U.S. presidential candidates, since his days in the 1960s and ’70s as a teacher and assistant track and football coach at St. Albans, where he schooled well-heeled sons of prominent Washingtonians.
“Brooks has single-handledly molded my entire career, from the time I left Howard until now,” said Oliver, 29. “Every single decision has been hand-crafted. His technique is imprinted on me. . . . He has a benevolent dictatorship, a contract: He says, ‘Do what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it, and how I tell you to do it, and I guarantee success.’ ”
But only Oliver, who did not take up the sport until his junior year in high school, could seal the contract, Johnson said. After winning the Olympic bronze in 2008, he set an American record in the 110-meter hurdles last year, 12.89 seconds, the third-fastest time ever. Last weekend in Eugene, Ore., Oliver edged 2004 Olympic gold medal winner Liu Xiang of China with a world-leading time of 12.94
At the June 23-26 U.S. championships, Oliver will be heavily favored to win a spot on the U.S. team that will travel in August to Daegu, South Korea, for the 2011 world championships.
“I learned long ago, it’s not the teacher that matters; it’s what is learned,” Johnson said. “The difference between him and most other athletes is that he takes the information you give him, and he processes and applies it. . . . [Former Olympic champion hurdler] Allen Johnson is a fantastic athlete. David is not. If he was a fantastic athlete, he wouldn’t have to be so technical in the most technical event of all time.”
Johnson was a bit older than Oliver is now, just into his 30s, when he confronted the late St. Albans headmaster Charles S. Martin on the school’s campus in 1965. The son of a housemaid and a shoe-shiner, Johnson pushed for racial equality as a community organizer in Adams Morgan after working his way through Tufts University outside Boston and the University of Chicago law school.
Johnson gave Martin, an Episcopal minister, an earful for running “an all-white school in a black town.”
Martin told Johnson it was easy to criticize. What, he asked, was his solution?
Johnson recalls replying, “I am the solution.”
So Martin hired him. Soon after, Johnson began arriving to St. Albans in starched shirts and skinny ties to teach cultural anthropology and history while serving as an assistant coach in football and track and field. He demanded that his eighth-graders read Plato’s “Republic,” “What Makes Sammy Run,” “The Great Gatsby” and a biography of Malcolm X. He took his classes to hear Richard Pryor at the legendary Washington music club, The Cellar Door. He headed out to inner-city churches to recruit black kids.
He usually forgot to restrain his salty language, so focused was he, former students said, on driving home the lessons he believed they absolutely had to learn.
“This little world of Washington — white, privileged St. Albans — landed a wildly talented, flamboyant, funny, charismatic [teacher] and nobody was ever the same for it,” said David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist who played football for Johnson and shared a lunch table with him. “He was a character. He didn’t trim his sails at all for the school.”
In the 12 years he was at St. Albans before heading to the University of Florida, and later Stanford University, Johnson’s true gift, coaching, became apparent. In 1968, Esther Stroy, a 15-year-old girl he trained through a neighborhood track club, won a trip to that summer’s Olympics in Mexico City. Four years later, he led hurdler Lacey O’Neal and several others to the Munich Games. By 1976, he served as a member of the U.S. Olympic team staff for the first time.
One of his running stars at St. Albans was a kid by the name of Bob Clayton, the 1968 Interstate Athletic Conference cross-country champion. St. Albans alum George Haywood, now a Washington-based private investor, recalled that Johnson asked more of Clayton than any other athlete.
“I have this vivid image that I’ll never get out of my head,” said Haywood, who owns a men’s 55 masters world record in the 4x400 relay. “Brooks walks over to where Bobby was and yells ‘[Expletive] it, Clayton! You [expletive] . . . ’ Bobby is doubled over, barfing his guts out, and Brooks is cussing him out.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m glad I’m not that good.’ ”
Oliver, a star youth football player, didn’t take up hurdling until his junior year at Denver East High. He finished third in Denver’s State 5A high school championships in the 110 hurdles as a senior in 2000, attracting virtually no national attention. He ended up on scholarship at Howard, playing football and running track. He won a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title as a freshman.
As a sophomore, Oliver skipped a few practices. Howard Coach Michael Merritt kicked him off the team and barred him from a couple of meets. Even worse, Merritt called Brenda Chambers, Oliver’s single mother and a former track star herself, and told her her son’s scholarship was in jeopardy.
“I’m embarrassed, livid, upset,” recalled Chambers, who confronted her son. “What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?”
“It was like a wake-up call,” Oliver said. “It was the best thing that probably happened in my career. . . I realized I gotta be more serious. I can’t take these gambles with my career. I didn’t want to be back on a plane to Denver, Colorado, a disappointment to my family.”
Oliver’s rededication to the sport produced quick results. He finished fourth in the hurdles at the NCAA championships in 2003, a major achievement. An injury, however, kept him out of the U.S. Olympic trials the next year. Before his graduation, he contacted Johnson and requested the chance to train with his professional group.
Then he piled up his belongings and drove to Orlando.
Oliver admitted he knew almost nothing about the coach to whom he was handing his training life, other than he always seemed to be wearing distinctive straw hats.
Oliver learned plenty on the first day of practice; Johnson, meantime, learned everything he needed to on the second.
“He threw up three times,” Johnson said of Oliver’s first day. “And came back.”
Under Merritt, Oliver had learned the basics of running the hurdles. Johnson, however, talked about the discipline with a sophistication and level of detail that confused Oliver. Hurting physically, he found himself lost intellectually.
“I was getting cussed out by Brooks day after day, and he didn’t care that I didn’t understand what he was talking about,” Oliver said. “He figured I better understand what he was talking about.”
Said Chambers: “David would tell me, ‘This man acts like he hates me. I can’t get nothing right.’ ”
Yet all along, Johnson enticed Oliver with a plan and goals that seemed impossibly lofty. Not wanting to defy another coach, Oliver took Johnson’s words, and demands, to heart. But it was hard, even humiliating, work. Oliver recalled spending countless hours training on one five-meter section of the track, repeating seemingly remedial drills designed to hone his technique.
“Practices would be so long, so tedious, so boring,” Oliver said. “I’d be on the women’s hurdles all day.”
Over the next few years, the pair refined Oliver’s technique, one detail at a time. Yet they never watched a single frame of video to accomplish the tweaks. Johnson wanted Oliver to execute by feel. To encourage the process a few years ago, he sent Oliver to a museum in Paris before an international meet to study Picasso’s works, explaining that the artist’s development from a painter who expressed himself in complex images to simple ones was an evolution worth emulating.
“My times every year just got lower and lower and lower,” Oliver said. “It came together. It just snowballed for me. It was just like a confidence thing. [Now], I never second-guess myself, and I never second-guess my coach.”
This summer, the competition will heat up for Oliver in what many consider to be the sport’s most competitive and exciting event. He is expected to be challenged at the world championships by Xiang, Cuba’s Dayron Robles and Jamaica’s Dwight Thomas.
Oliver could hardly sit still in the plastic seats above the track as he discussed the challenges ahead.
“I just need to win races, and that’s fun,” Oliver said. “Coming out of Howard University, I’ve already done more than I’m supposed to be doing.”
Oliver nodded at Johnson, sitting across the stands.
“I’ve already won, as long as I satisfy myself and the man out there in the straw hat.”