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North's Johnson aims for better showing at Olympic Trials

Jim Yike will be at his daughter's summer league swim meet tonight, but his thoughts will be in Oregon.

The longtime Gwinnett teacher and coach plans to monitor Internet coverage of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for track and field, anxiously awaiting results on his former high school thrower at North Gwinnett, Kibwe Johnson.

Though Johnson enters the hammer competition as the top-seeded American, the pressure of trials is intense and Yike is concerned that a recent wrist injury may hinder Johnson.

"(Johnson) fell at the end of May and hurt his wrist and he had to take two weeks off, so I'm even more nervous going into this one," Yike said. "He had such a winding path to get here and he's been so focused the whole time.

"He and his wife (Canadian thrower Crystal Smith-Johnson) had their first child, a little girl, in April and I'm hoping that will give him some peace so he can do what he does and make it happen."

Making it happen means performing his best, and earning a spot on his first U.S. Olympic team.

That has been the quest for Johnson, who turned 31 on July 17, for years. The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder's size, strength and athleticism has made him a fixture on the list of top American throwers, but he has never broken through to the Olympic level.

His experience at the 2008 Olympic Trials was disappointing with just one mark out of his three throws in preliminaries followed by three straight fouls on his throws in the finals.

"He has such tremendous athleticism," Yike said. "It took him so long to get his athleticism under control in that ring."

Plenty has changed for Johnson since the 2008 trials. He got married, welcomed his daughter and began performing at the highest level of his hammer-throwing career. He has been training in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada with former Soviet Olympic champion Anatoliy Bondarchuk, which sparked a breakout 2011 season.

Johnson had major triumphs when he was younger, like winning the 2008 USA Track and Field Indoor title in the weight throw, but nothing like last year.

He launched a toss of 80.31 meters (266 feet, 9 inches) to win the hammer throw at the 2011 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. The throw, among the world's best last year, was the longest by a U.S. hammer thrower since 2000 and it made him just the third American ever to cross the 80-meter plateau.

He also starred at the Pan Am Games with a gold medal and an event-record throw of 79.63 meters (261-3).

Yike expected incredible success from Johnson, who also played football at North. His meandering career path began with the Georgia Bulldogs' track and field team before he played football at Moorpark College (Calif.) and eventually found his way to Ashland University (Ohio).

"(Johnson) was such a special case," Yike said. "To see a kid throw that far and run as fast as he could in high school was amazing. In high school, I couldn't get him in the discus ring because he wanted to work on starts in the 100."

Now Johnson is focused on nothing but the hammer throw, an event that hasn't seen much American success of late.

The last U.S. medal in the Olympic hammer throw came in 1996 and the last U.S. gold in the Olympic hammer happened in 1956. But before Johnson can take on those droughts, he has to deliver this week and qualify for the London Games.

He will have many of his high school friends in Georgia rooting him on at trials, as well as others in the Gwinnett County track and field community, particularly since a Gwinnett track and field athlete has never made the U.S. Olympic Team.

Few locally will be rooting as hard as Yike, who still talks frequently with Johnson and follows his career all over the globe.

"I'm going to be a nervous wreck (tonight)," Yike said. "It would be so special for him. And it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone like me just to be a part of the life of a kid like this. It's such a joy to see what he's doing right now."

Comments

Gary 1 year, 10 months ago

Good luck, Kibwe, in earning a spot, as a hammer thrower, on the 2012 USA Olympic track and field team this weekend! Since graduating from North Gwinnett High School, we followed you in your quest to win an Olympic gold medal... celebrating your victories... agonizing when you fell short of your potential... yet overall proud of your determination! Could being a North Gwinnett High School Bulldog have something to do with that!? This could be the North Gwinnett Bulldogs year, with 2012 graduate Malcolm Jackson joining you, Kibwe, as the last two Bulldogs to be state champions in their event. Malcolm earned his in the triple jump this Spring; you in the discus in 1998. Good luck and no fouls!

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