An Olympic legacy etched in a 'benevolent dictatorship'

George Diaz


5:44 PM EDT, June 23, 2012


LAKE BUENA VISTA — Deep in the heart of make-believe magic, Brooks Johnson is delving into the political philosophy of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and the Russian Revolution. You can almost hear Mickey Mouse in his high-pitched voice screaming, "Oh, nooooo! ... This is a happy place!"

Johnson continues anyway, noting that Russia was an agrarian society that would morph into an industrial society before embracing communism. But Lenin was in a hurry. Reform had to come quickly in the way of revolution. 'What we have to do is telescope time down and skip over the middle phase and go right to communism," Johnson said, paraphrasing Lenin.

Johnson and Lenin are blood brothers from different wombs. Tick, tick, they are in a hurry. Lenin wanted to jump-start a communist nation. Johnson simply looks at a stopwatch to see whether it reflects Olympic potential.

It is what track coaches do. Johnson has been trying to shrink time at this since John F. Kennedy was elected to the White House in 1960. Few are better at the game. Johnson's Olympic journey began with Willie May, a silver medalist in the 110-meter hurdles in the Rome Olympics in 1960, crisscrossing continents as he approaches another Olympic cycle in London in the summer of 2012.

All in all, 12 Olympics and a slew of decorated champions, including Evelyn Ashford, Chandra Cheeseborough and reigning 110-meter hurdles bronze medalist David Oliver, currently training with Johnson at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World.

"We have to compress time down," Johnson said. "If we can't compress time down, you don't need to be here.

"And you play the part of Lenin?" Johnson is asked.

"I tell them this is a benevolent dictatorship," Johnson said. "This is not a free-for-all."

If you want your kid to get a few pats on the back and participation medals, go find another coach. If you believe the kid has the makings of an Olympic champion, go see Brooks.

You will find him most weekdays at Disney, his signature beige straw hat shielding him from the sun — or better yet, in the covered stands — screaming, imploring, cajoling, cursing, doing everything possible to shave a split second of time.

At 78, Johnson isn't looking to make a move anywhere else. Instead, you come to him. It's up to you whether you stay.

He doesn't coddle or acquiesce to self-absorbed athletes. No earrings, dreadlocks, gold grills on the teeth. Show up on time, or you get bounced. Work hard, or you get bounced. Listen to what the man says, or you get bounced.

Don't like it? Leave.

There's a long line. Oliver has been training with Johnson since 2005 at Disney. He is one of the few men or women left standing from a total of 40 athletes or so who have come and gone.

"Basically he's like a brutally honest mirror," Oliver said.

Johnson's reflection is etched in a disciplined work ethic and a sharp mind that could have taken him different directions in life. His father shined shoes in Miami. His mom was a housemaid. Johnson had higher aspirations, excelling academically at Tufts University in Boston before earning his law degree at the University of Chicago.

He thought about becoming a "corporate player" until he had lunch with the father of a schoolmate. The kid's dad was a partner at a prestigious firm in Chicago.

"Regardless of what I think personally, my partners will say there is no room for blacks in corporate law," he said.

"So I can go get pimps and prostitutes out of jail, but I can't do corporate law?" Johnson said.

"That's essentially it," the man said.

That was the last door that got shut in Johnson's face. After failing to make the U.S. track team in 1964 as a sprinter — Johnson was involved in an automobile accident on the way to a qualifying track meet at Stanford — he shifted to a career path in coaching. That led him to St. Albans — a predominantly white prep school in Washington, D.C. — where he was an assistant track and football coach in 1965.

But even way back when, Johnson was a man who believed that both mind and body needed to be disciplined. He wore starched shirts and skinny ties while teaching cultural anthropology and history. He took his students on quirky, cultural field trips, including a Richard Pryor comedy show and a concert by the Temptations.

He had a few notable students under his tutelage, including Al Gore, Ted Kennedy Jr., and Marvin and Neil Bush, sons of former President George H.W. Bush.

But the names that stand out most in Johnson's resume are Olympians. May came first. Esther Story — a girl from a neighborhood track club — followed in 1968. Johnson spent 12 years at St. Albans before moving on to the University of Florida and then Stanford. He was part of the U.S. Track and Field Olympic coaching staff in 1976, 1984, 2004, and 2008.

Athletes followed him, a pied piper in a straw hat, bestowing wisdom with equal parts of sarcasm.

"You have to be able to decipher what the real meaning in everything is, and if you don't have that ability, you're not going to last out here," Oliver said.

Johnson has been at Disney since 1996. He was hired as part of a team to jump-start a fledging sports program at a place noted for its whimsical fantasy themes. But this was the real deal, and Disney's color-inside-the-lines corporate philosophy had to bend for folks such as Johnson.

"I thought the key to our success was authenticity, and there was nothing more authentic than Brooks," said Reggie Williams, president of Disney Sports at the time. "We never shut down opinions. I can't ever remember disagreeing with anything Brooks did, but some of the things we were doing to turn the business around obviously was contrary to what we had been done previously."

They turned the Disney Marathon from a financial drain into a success. Kids from all ages and backgrounds participated in meets, and the more talented ones stuck around to hang with Johnson. He has a great eye for Olympic potential.

It starts with the head. You have to be a little crazy.

"At the end of the day, there has to be a screw loose," Johnson said. "There's no well-adjusted athlete on the Olympic podium. Because if you are well-adjusted, you will not go to the extremes necessary to get there."

Oliver threw up three times the first time he trained with Johnson. He came back the next day.

A while later, he had to pick up a friend at the airport and was 10 minutes late to practice. When he arrived, Johnson told him to leave.

"Did you think he would come back?" Johnson is asked.

"I didn't care," he said.

Through all of the work, through all of the screaming, the expletives that would make Mickey and Minnie blush, Oliver stands a few months away from the likelihood of stepping on that Olympic podium again.

He may be joined by others in the Disney parade of Olympians. Besides Oliver, Johnson is training David Payne, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist in the 110-meter hurdles; hurdler Tiffany Ross Williams; sprinter Connie Moore; and April Holmes, a Paralympics athlete who is the world record holder in the 100, 200 and 400 meters.

Holmes is competing in the Paralympics Track & Field Trials in Indianapolis from Friday through July 1. The others already began their chase for Olympic gold at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., which are running from this past Thursday to July 1.

Their triumph will be Johnson's triumph. Johnson doesn't need the validation. He has four decades' worth, etched in gold, silver and bronze.

There are other tangible rewards. He has an envelope called "love letters." They are thank-yous from his athletes, not so much for the medals but for the life lessons.

The word "coach" is a misnomer for people such as Brooks Johnson. They are teachers.

The lessons involve the scope of life, from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Dennis Rodman (re: screw loose) to Richard Pryor. Johnson did not revolutionize coaching, but he has owned it in a very unique way.

Here in Mickey's land of hope and dreams, he keeps imploring his charges toward greatness.

"Great job today," he tells Oliver after a recent workout. "You got that Olympic five-ring fever, brother."

"I'm ready to go," Oliver said.

"I know you are," Johnson said, glancing at his stopwatch, which validates five decades of a benevolent dictatorship.

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com