Anthony Johnson knows there’s a bar to get over in order to reach his dream of competing in the Olympics.
In his first track and field season at The Evergreen State College, he’s already cleared 7 feet in the high jump, an elite standard on the track circuit. His 7-foot, 21/4-inch jump from February left him a fraction of an inch short of automatically qualifying him for the 2012 Olympic trials (the 2016 Olympic qualifying standards have yet to be released).
This weekend, he’s a favorite to win the national title in the high jump at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Gulf Coast, Alabama. Johnson’s personal-best outdoor jump of 6-11, achieved most recently at the prestigious Oregon Relays last month, ties him with Dickinson State’s Andrew Knebel for the NAIA lead.
“There’s a lot of talent that’s yet to be tapped,” said Geoducks’ high jump coach, Jenny Brogdon.
But the high jump bar isn’t the only obstacle the 6-foot-4 sophomore has had to clear in his life. Johnson, 23, has been jailed five times for misdemeanor crimes involving assault and robbery.
He doesn’t shy away from his criminal history, and proudly displays the tattoos that are reminiscent of his past. However, Johnson insists that what is past is past.
“I’m never ashamed of where I’ve come from because those people helped me learn ... and helped me grow,” Johnson said. “Every obstacle I’ve faced in life, I’ve faced it with them in mind.”
THE WRONG PATH
Johnson, a Seattle native and graduate of Garfield High School, said he “hung out with the wrong group” and was in places where there was “not a lot of success and just not a lot of real hope.” He identified his parents as Tracy Ann Johnson and Anthony Maurice Brown, both of whom are serving time at state correctional facilities.
In 2009, Johnson was attending Eastern Washington University. That October he spent 30 days in jail — including his 19th birthday — after being arrested for assault and robbery of another Eastern student.
Sitting inside jail cell E-24 of the Spokane County Jail, which Johnson referred to as “big boy jail,” is when he first confided in his cellmate about jumping in the Olympics.
Looking for a fresh start, Johnson decided to go to Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz. That spring, he placed eighth with a jump of 6-83/4 at the 2010 National Junior College Athletic Association championships.
He returned to Washington that summer, and for the next three years he roamed the state, crashing with friends, living paycheck-to-paycheck and getting into trouble.
Johnson credits Dre Taylor, the leading scorer for Evergreen’s men’s basketball team last season, for helping him get back in school. The two are best friends — “we haven’t lived apart since elementary school,” Johnson said — and also graduated together from Garfield.
Last fall, Johnson re-enrolled in college for the third time. Now he’s on track to become the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
“I realized if I didn’t get a degree this is what I was going to be for the rest of my life,” Johnson said.
BACK TO TRACK
Despite not training regularly for three years, Johnson remained in good physical condition. Brogdon, an Olympia woman whose high jump accolades include a Pac-10 Conference runner-up in 2002 and a 2012 Olympic trials trainee, was in awe of the talent she saw soaring in the gymnasium during Johnson’s winter workouts.
In a six-week span, Johnson improved nearly 6 inches from 6-63/4 on Dec. 13 to a personal-best jump of 7-21/4 at the UW Indoor Invitational on Feb. 1. For comparison, his personal best would rank fourth in the Pac-12 Conference this season.
“It’s his natural ability just shining through,” Brogdon said.
He also earned an invitation to the prestigious USA Indoor Track and Field Championships in Albuquerque, N.M. Despite not clearing the opening height of 6-11, the experience opened Johnson’s eyes for the future. He also received advice from fellow competitors Eric Kynard, who won silver at the 2012 London Olympics, and Dusty Jonas, who came in first at the 2013 USA Indoor Track and Field Championships.
“That experience was amazing,” Johnson said. “I learned a lot from them.”
On March 8, he became the Geoducks’ first track and field All-American, placing fifth at the NAIA Indoor Championships, clearing 6-9. Brogdon said Johnson’s focus and preparation is still on this weekend for the NAIA Outdoor Championships, even after sweeping the high jump (6-9) and long jump (23-111/2) at the Cascade Collegiate Conference championships two weekends ago.
Next on Johnson’s list of goals is qualifying for the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. He needs to hit 7-41/2 before June 15 to attend the event on June 26-29 in Sacramento, Calif.
“That’s what I’m chasing,” Johnson said. “It’s a better chance to make the Olympic team.”
Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 firstname.lastname@example.org @MegWochnick theolympian.com/southsoundsports