IMG coach Kibwé Johnson harnesses raw ability to become Olympian

Kibwé Johnson transitions from Olympian to coach at IMG Academy

Kibwé Johnson is an outlier as an American in the hammer throw and is bringing his unique skill set to IMG Academy as throws coach
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Kibwé Johnson is an outlier as an American in the hammer throw and is bringing his unique skill set to IMG Academy as throws coach

One video was enough to show Jud Logan the potential Kibwé Johnson had. The Ashland University coach didn’t know anything about the troubled thrower when Bob MacKay, the throws coach at Moorpark College in California, reached out to him to send some footage of Johnson. Ashland, a Division II powerhouse, seemed to MacKay like a logical fit as Johnson’s next move after junior college. His film could sell it.

Logan didn’t know any of Johnson’s background. He didn’t know about the academic troubles that ended his Georgia career before it manifested into success. He had never had a chance to see Johnson throw in person. His form was flawed and he was still filling out like most college students are, but there was something about the way he exploded through his rotations and into his throws.

“There’s three things that an athlete can have,” Logan said. “They can have technique, speed and strength, and two of those things can be coached way, way, way up. You can coach technique. You can coach strength.

“Speed-wise you either have the gears or you don’t and I could tell from the video that, coaches speak, Kibwé was ‘fully-geared.’”

Johnson’s circuitous path toward collegiate success finally culminated with three national championship in 2007 during his third and final year with the Eagles. Even at a small D-II program in Ohio, Johnson transcended. His championship-winning 25.08-meter heave in the 35-pound weight throw during the indoor season of his senior year set an NCAA record for any level. His 67.86-meter hammer throw during the outdoor season set a D-II record.

By 2008, he was already an Olympic contender as the third best hammer thrower in the United States, narrowly missing out on a trip to Beijing. During the eight years since, Johnson has become a fixture as the United States’ premier athlete in the event. He became one of only four Americans in history to crack 80 meters in 2011 and finished ninth at the 2012 Summer Olympics. The 35-year-old IMG Academy throws coach will try to add to his legacy at 8:40 a.m. Wednesday when he throws in the first group of hammer throw qualifications at Estádio Olímpico Joao Havelange in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

“He continues to get even better technically with the same levels of speed and power,” IMG track and field director Loren Seagrave said. “He’s got a really young body.”

Johnson finally found his way to Ashland as a 23-year-old in 2004, four years after his lone season in Athens, Ga. He was already older than nearly everyone else on the Eagle roster and was an unparalleled athlete on the AU campus. He once went to work out with the football team, Logan said, and ran a 40-yard-dash in 4.5 seconds with a 36-inch vertical leap at 238 pounds.

“Those are intangibles for throwers,” Logan said, “that just don’t usually exist.”

He was an athlete who happened to throw the hammer and that was good enough to get him to the United States Olympic Trials the summer before he joined the Eagles. But he was still four years away from completing his degree and eight years from finally reaching the Olympics for the first time. Logan would be entrusted with creating Johnson’s foundation.

Johnson red-shirted his first year with the Eagles then missed a full season due to a broken leg. By the time he finally competed for AU, Johnson was a 25-year-old athletic specimen with two years of training in one of the best collegiate throwing programs in the country.

The results were finally there to match Johnson’s potential. A record-setting performance in the winter. Two national championships in the spring. The following summer he won the silver medal in the hammer throw at the 2007 Pan American Games.

By 2008, he felt, he was deserving of a spot on the 2008 Summer Olympics team. He set an world record in the weight throw at the 2008 USA Indoor National Track and Field Championships and entered U.S. Olympic Trials among the favorites to qualify.

He fouled out. USA Track & Field passed. Johnson watched the 2008 Olympics from home.

“I knew I was just leaving a whole lot of meters and talent on the table,” Johnson said. “I was a good athlete throwing hammer and I wanted to be a hammer thrower, so it was frustrating seeing people beat me that I knew that I could beat.”

Johnson’s solution was unorthodox. He left the United States, moving to Canada where he would train with Anatoliy Bondarchuk, the most decorated throwing coach in history. Bondarchuk was a gold medalist for the Soviet Union as a hammer thrower at the 1972 Summer Olympics and has had his throwers sweep the podium at the Olympics twice.

80.31Personal best throw, in meters, in the hammer throw.

65.11Personal best throw, in meters, in the discus.

25.12Personal best throw, in meters, in the weight throw.

Johnson was desperate to live up to his potential, and a thrower can’t do any better than throwing for Bondarchuk.

“You could have told me to move to Antarctica with that coach,” Johnson said, “and I would’ve done it.”

Within three years, Johnson cracked 80 meters and won a gold medal at the 2011 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. In 2012, he became the first American to reach the Olympic finals in the hammer since 1996.

Johnson is trying to be more than just a great athlete now. He moved down to Bradenton in October to begin as a coach with the Ascenders, who took interest in Johnson because of his versatility.

There is no official world record combining ability in hammer throw, discus and weight throw, but if there was Johnson would be unparalleled. His total distance of 170.54 meters is the best in history.

“That’s an all-around thrower and that’s what I wanted to get was an all-around throws coach,” Seagrave said. “There’s only a few out there.”

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2

How to watch

Who: Kibwe Johnson

What: Men’s hammer throw qualifying

When: 8:40 a.m.

Where: Estádio Olímpico Joao Havelange

Stream: NBCOlympics.com

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