By Derek Mandell
There are some stories so amazing and unexpected that they evolve into legends. While some legends grow, other incredible stories are not shared and fade away to become lost memories. There’s one story in particular that I’ve witnessed grow into a legend that deserves to finally be told. The most absurd thing about sharing this story, is that it would likely be the first time the island will have heard it.
I’d like to share with you the legend of Johnson Lee: the fastest man from Guam you’ve never heard of.
Who is Johnson Lee?
In brief, Johnson Lee accomplished the most phenomenal improvement in running I have ever seen. Johnson transformed from a 24 minute 5k runner in high school into the Guam national record holder in the 10,000m run (10k). His personal best of 31 minutes and 39.24 seconds is the fastest anybody from Guam has ever run a 10k on the track. To put this in perspective, he had to run two sub-16 minute 5k’s back to back, averaging 5 minutes and 5 seconds per mile.
Johnson is a 2004 graduate of JFK High School and currently lives in Vancouver, Washington as an electrical engineer in the power and transmission industry. Although he has no Chamorro blood in him, he is by all accounts a true Guamanian. This past month on January 25, 2015, he finished second overall at the Vancouver Lake Half Marathon in Washington with a time of 1 hour, 11 minutes, and 17 seconds.
The finishing time would have counted as another Guam national record if he we was still considered a resident of Guam. Recognizable Guam runners like Brent Butler, Wayne Blas, Fred Schumann, Joe Taitano, Neil Weare, Ryan Matienzo, Christopher Magtoto, John Aquino IV, and I have never run as fast as Johnson Lee in these distances.
Johnson was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1986. In 1988, his family moved to Guam when Johnson was only two years old and made the island their home. His parents, Patrick Lee and Hon Yu Lau, opened Mandarin Chinese Restaurant in Hagatna before selling it in the mid 2000’s, and they still reside on Guam.
While Johnson excelled in the classroom on Guam, he never participated in activities outside of academics. During his college research phase in high school, he found that colleges tend to favor well-rounded students and decided to join a sport.
“I came from an extremely strict household and upbringing which resulted in me being naïve and not knowing much about the world outside of school,” said Johnson via email. “My parents didn’t allow me to participate in sports or any activities outside of academics. It was only when I mentioned that doing so would help in the college application process did they give me permission. By the time they allowed me to join, I was already in my senior year in high school.”
At the time, I was the captain of the JFK cross country team and shared a majority of my classes with Johnson. He had approached me with questions about the sport and how he could join the team. When he finally showed up to practice, he wore a pair of generic blue velcro shoes and sweat pants and I never had any thought that this person would not only beat me in a race, but also end up as one of the fastest distance runners to ever come from Guam. Boy, was I wrong.
“I participated in most, if not all, of the cross country meets including the All-Island meet. I was not fast; finishing all my races around the same times, not showing much improvement. This was due to my lack of knowledge of the sport and the world of fitness and athletics. By the time I learned how to run and train properly, the season ended. Again, me being sheltered in life at the time and not knowing much about track, I chose to join soccer instead (of track and field later in the year),” Johnson said.
Part II of the Legend of Johnson Lee will be published Tuesday, February 10th. Stay tuned for a story you don’t want to miss out on!
Author’s note: Johnson will next be lining up at the 2015 Boston Marathon in April where he looks to set a personal record. He will join Guam’s marathon national record holder Wayne Blas, recently named professional Cameron O’Neal, Kristina Ingvarsson, and Patrick Silverio as runners from Guam participating in the race. Johnson was recently married this past January in Vancouver, Washington and coach Rob Conner officiated the wedding.
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