Sept. 27, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Having passed the many tests of Georgia Tech, Michael Johnson has taken time to not only reflect but thank the stars for his pending induction into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame.
His experiences on The Flats were mostly fantastic, yet the former track and field standout suffered through some early finish lines.
Pain endured on and off the track made him more than he had been, but there were few obvious signs for a while after he arrived in 1996 that he would run on Tech’s 1998 NCAA championship 4×400-meter relay squad.
The fact that he bears the same name as a man who was simultaneously winning Olympic gold medals on a track across town didn’t carry weight.
Fresh from Denver, Johnson, 36, had mountains to climb before he could run like the wind with relay teammates – and Tech Hall of Famers – Tomas and Jonas Motiejunas and Angelo Taylor.
Times were tough on that track, and it wasn’t any easier in the classrooms. He heard the sermons early in his freshman year about how so many students would not pass muster, would not graduate. They weren’t kidding, but for a while he didn’t completely grasp what all the fuss was about.
“It was probably at our first academic advisement meeting that I heard that,” Johnson said. “They said, `These are just statistics. We want for you all to get through, but the numbers are the numbers, and if you don’t [keep after your classwork. . . you won’t make it out.’
“It was extremely difficult. I considered myself pretty talented, but . . . I did not necessary heed the warnings. I was in class with a lot of disciplined people, and I was not one of the smartest. It was a bruise of ego.”
There were troubles on the track, too, though they were delayed.
As a freshman, Johnson competed in the4x400 in the NCAA Indoor Championships, and on squads that won ACC indoor and outdoor titles.
He missed the NCAAs, though, and that brought an unfamiliar pain. Track had, in fact, become painful.
“Absolutely it was. I don’t think my body was ready for it,” Johnson said. “, I ended up fracturing left fibula in back of leg. The training and pounding, I wasn’t ready for it. I had a stress fracture. My body basically broke down. It was right after ACCs, at a crucial time where big meets happen.
“Not being able to run, I just felt like I was letting the team down. It was internal pressure, not external. I felt I was making the team worse.”
Through that freshman year, Johnson absorbed a valuable lesson on and off the track: pay attention, don’t be too proud to accept help, and don’t try to be a hero.
“I learned A: When your body is giving you a warning, you heed it. You’ve got pain receptors for a reason,” he recalled. “I probably should have given my training staff and coaches a warning. When you’re 18 and you think you’re invincible . . . It’s OK to say something is not right.
“And B: I eventually realized it’s not the end of the world. I had three more years coming.”
Indeed, and the next would produce that NCAA championship, a moment that will soon be relieved gloriously.
Johnson anticipates being re-united with his relay teammates, all of whom have already been inducted into the Tech Hall of Fame.
He’s looking forward to time with Taylor (2009), Jonas (2010) and Tomas Motiejunas (2012) at the induction dinner Oct. 10 at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center.
It was no real surprised that Tech would turn out so many 400-meter stars.
Former Yellow Jacket Antonio McKay Sr. won Olympic gold in ’84 and ’88, and Derrick Adkins won in ’96, when Derek Mills was a member of the 4×400 relay gold medal team. Taylor went on to become a three-time Olympic champion (2000 400-meter hurdles, and 2008 400-meter hurdles and 4×400 relay team) and three-time world champion (07, ’09, ’11 4×400 relay team).
Tech track coach Grover Hinsdale mentored them all, McKay as an assistant and the others as head coach.
All the way from his hometown of Denver, Johnson chose Tech over Florida, Brown and Virginia.
“It was a combination of wanting to get away from home for college and wanting to be at a school that has a great academic reputation and a great athletic tradition,” Johnson explained of his choice of Tech. “It was Atlanta . . . the school had a beautiful campus in the city, the history, the alumni.
“It was the Olympians, the medalists that had come before. Mills and Adkins — Adkins was competing in the ’96 Olympics, and my coach was coaching in the Olympics. All of them had their degrees; that was a big piece. Tech wasn’t just pumping out athletes and forgetting academics.”
Johnson worked with his predecessors, as so many former Tech track stars continue to work out at the school.
“Adkins was more of a technique guy . . . he gave me tips about stride, and as far as my form,” he recalled. “The other Michael Johnson had just won Olympics. Running upright was becoming vogue. He ran straight up and down. I was more horizontal than vertical. We went through some of that.
“Mills gave me a lot of tips on running indoors. That was new to me. There was not an indoor season in Colorado. The turns are tighter, a lot of turns are banked. I didn’t know any of the inside tips. Mills was great. He was a beast indoors. He also knew about positioning.”
After graduating in 2000 with a track record that included a top 400 time (3:01.89) that is still third-fastest in Tech history, plus multiple All-ACC and All-America honors, Johnson didn’t end up in the position he anticipated – at least not right away.
For about a year, he worked in Alpharetta as a financial advisor with American Express before returning to Denver to work with his father, Michael B. Johnson – a CPA – at Johnson & Company.
“I always thought I would end up in New York,” he said. “I was focused, I wanted to end up on Wall Street. Since I was a teenager, I was fascinated with investments and stocks.”
Ultimately, Johnson made it to New York following four years in Denver, and earned an MBA from New York University in 2006.
After a brief spell on Wall Street, working for JP Morgan, the other coast called. For seven years, he managed investments in Los Angeles for the Disney company. Then, Johnson went home again.
“I came back in 2012. My father had a stroke, and couldn’t run his business any more,” he explained. “I was the only one in the family with the ability to do it.”
Michael W. Johnson quickly went about growing Johnson & Company, adding financial management to what chiefly had been a tax firm.
His father passed away a couple months ago.
“We’ve had like a 93 percent retention rate [of clients], and in the second year we saw some growth. People learned, I guess, that, `OK, he has his own style,’ ” Johnson said. “Some of that has come from what I learned at Georgia Tech.” Johnson has run quite a path.
He said it always circles back to Georgia Tech — which he visits at least once a year for a track meet – and his teammates and Grover Hinsdale.
He is looking forward to his pending return trip more than others.
“It is a big deal because whenever people ask, `What is your greatest achievement?’ I tell them getting out of GT in four years with a degree, a national championship, being voted track team captain and getting a Total Person award. That’s still, to me, the greatest achievement.”
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