“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.”
‘I am the solution’
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.