Hurdler Allen Johnson enjoyed standout career

Olympic champion Allen Johnson hopes to stay in track as a coach and agent now that he has retired as a hurdler.
Olympic champion Allen Johnson hopes to stay in track as a coach and agent now that he has retired as a hurdler. (Gary Hershorn/reuters)
By Carl Little
Thursday, August 12, 2010; 10:20 PM

It is fitting that Allen Johnson, an Olympic gold medalist, chose the 110-meter hurdles as his specialty. He has taken the challenge of getting over obstacles and literally turned it into a game.

Johnson was born legally blind in his left eye, which impairs his depth perception. He's unable to pour water into a glass without holding the glass in one hand, but he managed to fling himself over 10 42-inch barriers in less than 13 seconds.

"The body adapts and I guess my body found ways to compensate," he says.

The D.C. native has pieced together one of the legendary careers in track and field. He won Olympic gold in 1996, owns a record four world outdoor championships and three indoor titles and broke the magic 13-second barrier 11 times in his career, more than anyone else in history.

Johnson announced his retirement last month at 39, an age when most high hurdlers have long since hung up their spikes.

Sylvanues Hepburn, Johnson's coach since 2000, said Johnson's technique, even more than his foot speed, allowed him to last so long. Instructors at coaches' clinics show film of Johnson when they want to model impeccable form.

Johnson "reinvented the event," Hepburn says. "When he was 34, 35, he was still running under 13 seconds. There was no other hurdler doing that at that age. I don't know where I'm going to find another athlete like that."

On July 10, Johnson stood in front of a crowd of about 7,000 at a meet in England and said his body, in its third decade as a pro, could no longer handle the demands of the high hurdles.

The unofficial end came three days earlier in Scotland. During warm-ups, Johnson pulled up, then grabbed for his thigh. The strain he felt in his left quadriceps was enough to keep him from racing. He knew then the time had come to call it quits.

Retired life, just a few weeks old, has been a mixed bag. While he misses competing, he is thrilled to have more time to watch his daughter, Tristine, blossom in the sport. The 18-year-old was nearly 4 when Johnson took his victory lap around the Olympic stadium with her in his arms. This fall, Tristine will compete as a freshman at North Carolina, her father's alma mater. Johnson also has started taking steps toward his next career as a coach and agent.

"When it's something you really love doing you don't want to stop, but I'm accepting of the decision to retire," Johnson said from his home in South Carolina. "It's a lot easier now to be with my family, and I think I have a lot that I can give the young athletes."

The man who won gold in Atlanta in 12.92 seconds - an Olympic record at the time and just .01 of a second shy of the then-world record - broke 13 seconds for the last time 10 years later, winning at the 2006 World Cup in Athens.

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