It was nearly impossible for his high school teammates to predict the heights Allen Johnson would reach in track and field. The 1989 Lake Braddock grad was an exceptional athlete, but he did not win an individual state title until his senior year.
"He was great [in high school], but not one or two in the state," said Bob Digby, the former Lake Braddock track and field coach.
Not to say that Johnson lacked standout track athlete status at Lake Braddock, and not that three individual state titles won in high school are an easy feat to accomplish, but they pale in comparison to what he went on to do afterwards. Johnson went on to win college titles at the University of North Carolina and Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996. He was a seven-time U.S. outdoor champion, a four-time world outdoor champion, a four-time U.S. indoor champion and a three-time world indoor champion. His specialty is hurdles, and his title quest is not over yet.
"He is still one of the best in the world, no question about it," said Morgan Birge, a 1988 Lake Braddock graduate. Birge was Johnson's teammate, and later became a coach at Lake Braddock himself.
While Johnson did not win an individual track state title until 1989, he did help Lake Braddock earn team titles at state meets. Birge said there were two reasons why the Bruins took home the 1988 indoor track state title. One reason was a strong distance team and the other reason was Allen Johnson. Birge said Johnson competed in many events at the meets and that he would be very tired just from running from one event to the next.
"He holds pretty much all of our school records, because he was so good at everything," said Birge. "He could jump high and far and he could run fast."
COACH DIGBY SAID Johnson did not grow into his body until his junior year of high school. "Freshman and sophomore years he was just a mess," said Digby. Besides being a top prospect for the Bruins track program, Johnson also played football for Lake Braddock. Digby said he would get injured a lot, so he told Johnson he was not allowed to play football his senior year. He added that Johnson was still mad at him for forbidding him the chance to play for the Bruins. Although he would go on to do great things in track, what football coach would not like a wide receiver who could run 55-meter hurdles in 7.46 seconds - his state winning time in 1989 - and who could clear 6-foot-11 in high jump - state winning jump in outdoor track of the same year?
According to Birge, Johnson was not a muscular type of a runner, but that he was extremely fit. He said that at the time it was hard to see how great Johnson would become. "To us, other athletes, it was tough to see how good he was. I would have seen it as a coach," said Birge.
Johnson's high school success and ability would have gone unnoticed by the public had it not been for his post-high school success. The current girls soccer coach at Lake Braddock, Liz Pike, attended Lake Braddock together with Johnson. "Allen was very quiet. In high school he was the shy guy," said Pike. She added that he was a great athlete in high school, but that he hit his peak in college.
"He was a fun guy to be around and a really great talent, but you wouldn't have known he was the best [by his demeanor]," said Birge. "He always had a smile on his face. He always tried really hard. He was a great guy."
AFTER HIGH SCHOOL Johnson found his way to Chapel Hill, where he was recruited to be a decathlete for the University of North Carolina. However, the coaches at UNC soon discovered what Digby had already known about the future star; he was injury prone. Johnson then specialized in hurdles and long jumping. He improved on his times and distances each year, until he won the 55-meter hurdles at the NCAA indoor track meet in 1992. That spring he came in third in 100-meter hurdles at the NCAA outdoor meet, and seventh in the Olympic Trials. He would finish his college career in 1993, with a second place finish in the 55-meter hurdles and 11th in the long jump at the indoor meet, and a second place finish in the 110-meter hurdles at the NCAA outdoor meet.
Johnson continued to improve his times, and his national and international careers took off after UNC. In 1994 he earned a second place in 110-meter hurdles at the World Cup, and was ranked sixth in the world. In 1995 he started accumulating his medals, winning at the World Outdoor Championships, and the U.S. Outdoor and Indoor Championships and becoming only the fourth man to break 13 seconds in 110-meter hurdles, running the event in 12.98 seconds.
However, Johnson's most brilliant moment would come the following year, in 1996. He was ranked first in the world, and he proved why he belonged there when he took the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympic games.
JOHNSON DID NOT STOP after the Olympic gold. He went on to win numerous other world and national titles. "Nobody has done what he has done in hurdles," said Digby. Although he has had problems with hamstring injuries over the years, Johnson always managed to come back and win another competition. Birge said Johnson stays in touch with his coaches from Lake Braddock and has stayed in touch with the community itself. In 1999 Johnson led a fundraiser and donated money for a brand new track at Lake Braddock. The track now bears his name, The Allen Johnson Track of Champions. "It was an honor to be on the team with him," said Birge.
Despite recent injuries, Johnson is still competing, and is hoping to earn a spot at the 2008 Olympics. He lives in South Carolina with his daughter Tristine.
Allen Johnson is 3 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.