An Olympian at last after barely missing a chance to wrestle in '92

Twenty years after barely missing a chance to wrestle in the Barcelona Olympics, Greenville’s James Johnson is headed to the London Games as an assistant coach.

calexander@newsobserver.comJuly 25, 2012 

  • More information James “JJ” Johnson Phoenix, Ariz. Age: 54. Hometown: Greenville. Assistant coach, Team USA Greco-Roman Wrestling Team, 2012 Olympic Games. Career highlights: – Served as coach for the 2011 U.S. World Team in Istanbul, Turkey. Also on the 2009 U.S. World Team coaching staff in Herning, Denmark. – Coached U.S. Senior Greco-Roman teams on international tours in the past eight years, including coaching at the Hungarian Grand Prix the past three years. – Has served as the head Greco-Roman coach for the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club of Scottsdale, Ariz., for the past eight years. The Sunkist Kids club has won the USA Wrestling Div. II national title in Greco-Roman the past four years. – Was an assistant wrestling coach for 10 years at Arizona State, working with head coach Bobby Douglas. Was also on the coaching staff at N.C. State when Tab Thacker was the NCAA heavyweight champion. – As a wrestler, won two Pan American Championships gold medals. Was second in the World Cup three times. Won three U.S. Nationals titles in Greco-Roman during his career, and was second in the 1992 Olympic Trials. – Elected to the North Carolina Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2007.

James Johnson didn’t have a very memorable start in wrestling, posting a losing record as a junior at D.H. Conley High in Greenville.

A year later, he was an undefeated state champion. He would earn a full scholarship to Kentucky and later wrestle internationally for the U.S. He helped coach the late Tab Thacker to an NCAA title at N.C. State and has spent the past decade developing wrestling champions in Phoenix.

Now, Johnson is headed to the Olympics.

Twenty years after barely missing a spot on the U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling team for the Barcelona Games, Johnson will be an assistant on Team USA’s Greco-Roman coaching staff in London.

“It’s a prestigious honor and a blessing to be chosen,” Johnson, 54, said this past week. “It’s an honor to go to the Olympics, but it’s all about the team, about getting our athletes ready, about trying to help them get medals. I think we have a chance to make some history.”

For the man known as “JJ,” the Olympic Games might be the culmination of his perseverance and hard work in the sport, beginning with the day in the 1970s when he decided to give wrestling a try. Milt Sherman, then the Conley wrestling coach, remembers Johnson as a gangly 11th-grader, a 6-4 teenager who was the oldest of five children and came from a fatherless family.

“What people need to know about James is he worked in the tobacco fields and cucumber fields to make money for school clothes and school supplies,” Sherman said. “There were holes in the wooden steps leading up to the porch of one of the houses his family lived in. There were flies in the house because it was not well screened.

“That’s the environment he came from, so you can definitely say athletics had a very positive effect on James Johnson’s life. I always have to smile now when I get a postcard from him in Cuba, Europe, Japan.”

Johnson was the state champion at 185 pounds for Conley in 1976 – the first in any sport for the high school, Sherman said. At Kentucky, he was an NCAA qualifier at 190 pounds, had a 65-21 record and was a three-time Southeastern Conference medalist.

After college, Johnson joined Bob Guzzo’s wrestling staff at N.C. State. Guzzo, he said, told him one task would be to work with the Wolfpack’s heavyweight.

“His name was Tab Thacker and he was 455 pounds,” Johnson said, laughing. “I saw this massive kid and asked (Guzzo), ‘What am I suppose do with him?’ They had this big hill at N.C. State and Bob said, ‘Make sure to get him up and down the hill for practice.’”

Thacker, who died in 2007 at 45, won ACC titles for the Pack and was the 1984 NCAA champion.

“Tab made it. He got up the hill,” Johnson said.

Close call in 1992

Johnson spent 10 years on the Arizona State wrestling staff under head coach Bobby Douglas. He’s still in the Arizona desert, working as the head Greco-Roman coach for the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club in Scottsdale, Ariz..

The club, founded in 1976, has produced several former national and Olympic champions including Rulon Gardner, the Greco-Roman gold medalist in 2000. Johnson is the club coach for Ben Provisor, who won the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials at 74 kg and is a member of Team USA’s Greco-Roman team.

Kim Martori-Wickey, executive director of Sunkist Kids, said Johnson provides his wrestlers with not just technical advice, but also inspirational guidance.

“He gives 150 percent every time he’s out there – he’s really in it for the athletes,” she said. “It means a lot, especially in wrestling, to have a coach who really understands your style and knows what to say in the corner, knows how to get the best out of you and motivate you.

“That’s what ‘JJ’ excels at. His heart is purely in the sport.”

As a competitor, Johnson won three U.S. national titles in Greco-Roman wrestling, which prohibits holds below the waist. He won two gold medals for the U.S. in the Pan American Games and finished fifth in the 1993 World Championships.

There was some disappointment. A second-place finish in the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials kept Johnson from competing in the Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain.

“I thought I had a really good opportunity to make the team,” Johnson said. “It didn’t work out. I was an alternate and I went to all the training camps, but I didn’t get the opportunity in Barcelona.”

2012 focus: helping others

Twenty years later, Johnson is getting his Olympic opportunity as a coach.

Johnson has been a coach on U.S. World Teams. He has coached U.S. Senior Greco-Roman teams in Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia and Finland.

“JJ is a very dedicated coach and we’re looking for all of his years of experience, knowledge and expertise to help our guys be prepared and to win medals,” said Steve Fraser, the head coach of the U.S. Greco-Roman team.

Johnson was in Beijing in 2008 for the Olympics but in an unofficial capacity. In London, he will be hands-on.

“Wrestling teaches you about toughness,” Johnson said. “It tests you physically, emotionally and spiritually. You have to be in great shape, but it’s not always the strongest who wins. You need to be mentally tough.

“It’s push and grind. Every second in a match you need to make decisions. You need to be disciplined. It’s six minutes at a very fast pace.”

While spending most of his time in Arizona and Colorado Springs, Colo., Johnson returns to Greenville when he can to visit his mother and family. He still has ties to his home state.

The James Johnson Award is given annually to the top scholastic wrestler in Eastern North Carolina. This year’s winner was Jon Wiley of South Brunswick High, the state 3A champ at 152 pounds.

Johnson said he has received a lot of congratulatory messages but still treasures a note sent him a few years ago by Danny Hodge, the legendary Oklahoma wrestler for whom the Dan Hodge Trophy – college wrestling’s Heisman Trophy – is named.

“Danny Hodge wrote, ‘One day, with your experience, you will be an Olympic coach. It will come true,’” Johnson said. “It has, and now as a coach I want to help others attain their goals.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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