Hurdler Allen Johnson enjoyed standout career

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.

"The only thing I regret for him is he never broke the world record," Bob Digby, who coached Johnson while he was a student at Lake Braddock, said. "He was close so many times. He danced all around it."

Slow to get started

For a world-class athlete, Johnson needed some time to jump-start his career. He starred as a multi-event athlete for Lake Braddock in the late 1980s, winning several state titles, but the nation's top college programs didn't consider him a can't-miss recruit. He went on to North Carolina, not a juggernaut in the sport, and won the 55-meter hurdles at the NCAA indoor championships. He had a third-place finish outdoors.

Even after an impressive college career he was the guy who nobody wanted. Johnson was sometimes turned away from races on the European pro circuit hours before they were supposed to start. The relative unknown was nixed in favor of athletes whom meet directors considered bigger draws.

Big-name sponsors weren't flocking to him either. After much pleading by his agent, Nike gave Johnson gear to wear but refused to sign him to a contract. Johnson says it was because they thought, at 5 feet 10 and 165 pounds, he was too small.

Even after finding global success, Johnson stayed connected to home. In 1996, the track at Lake Braddock was peppered with so many potholes that the school couldn't host meets. Johnson, fresh off his Olympic victory, returned to Burke to start the process of building a new one.

On a cool night after a football game, Johnson signed nearly 1,500 T-shirts. He and his mother, Saundra Johnson-Smith, got other Olympians such as Michael Johnson and Gail Devers to donate signed pictures and other memorabilia for a silent auction that raised more than $5,000. Johnson matched it with $5,000 of his own and got companies such as Nike and Oakley to contribute. U.S. Track and Field donated $5,000 worth of hurdles.

Lake Braddock raised roughly half of the $100,000 it needed. Fairfax County paid the rest. Lake Braddock hosted the first Allen Johnson Invitational on its brand new track in the spring of 1998. Since its installation, the Bruins have won a combined 10 boys' and girls' region titles.

Partly because of his work in restoring the track, Johnson was named the 1999 USATF Visa Humanitarian of the Year.

"I used the hell out of this guy," Digby said, laughing. "Every time I needed him, he'd come."

Coping with injuries

Doing too much led to Johnson's injuries on the track. As a lanky high schooler, leaping around practices while wearing an Eric Dickerson jersey and big, round glasses, Johnson participated in nearly everything. In 1988, when Lake Braddock won the Virginia AAA indoor state championship, he competed in the long jump, triple jump, high jump and 55 hurdles.

"When you competed at our program, we went out to win," Digby said. "Unfortunately, when you've got a guy like Allen who's going to get you a lot of points, he'd say put me in as much stuff as you can so we can win. Allen was as much a team player as anyone.

"That was so early in my coaching career that I probably didn't know how to take care of kids' injuries as well as I did in the end."

Injuries dogged Johnson's early years as a pro, but in those days he snapped back quickly. During the last few years, however, he spent more time recuperating than training.

Johnson tore a tendon in his ankle in 2008 that required surgery. He spent the better part of last year recovering.

In May, despite dealing with a sore Achilles' tendon and strained calf muscle, Johnson stepped onto the track in Shanghai for his first meet of the 2010 outdoor season. He finished in 13.65, one of the slowest times of his career. The voices of doctors and a few friends who were telling him it was time to retire looped inside his head as he limped away from the finish line.

Said Johnson: "Even when everybody's telling you that maybe it's time [to quit], you say 'I'm different. I'm not a regular person. I can do things that even great athletes can't do.' Then reality steps in.

"I think I might've stayed too long, but I needed to know it was really over. I was going to get every ounce out of myself. I did that."

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