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THE LEGEND OF JOHNSON LEE (Part 2)

In Part II of The Legend of Johnson Lee, Derek Mandell features Lee’s academics-to-athletics movement at the University of Portland.

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. 

Read Part I

Here is Part II.

“Time to Get in Shape”

In the spring of 2004, Johnson and I were both accepted into the University of Portland. Portland was a NCAA Division-1 school and cross country powerhouse, and I had my eyes set on competing there since high school. Johnson chose the school for its academic programs. While I went on to make the cross country team during the school’s orientation day, Johnson took a different path.

In his freshman year at Portland, Johnson was running 21 minute 5k’s, which was nowhere near acceptable times for the collegiate level, but that never discouraged him from trying.

Johnson Lee while attending JFK. (courtesy photo)

Johnson Lee while attending JFK. (courtesy photo)

“I thought about joining the team but when I heard how fast you and the rest of the team can run, I opted to run with my dorm’s running group instead. Over time, training and competing with these runners helped me improve my speed. I thought to myself, maybe I could keep up with you and the team,” said Johnson.

Johnson had asked me on several occasions about joining the cross country team, and I tried to tell him that he wasn’t fast enough in the nicest way possible. That year I was considered the fastest distance runner on Guam but was dead last on the Portland cross country team. In my mind, it was logical that if I was barely fast enough, Johnson was not fast enough by far. However, I learned quickly that Johnson would not take “no” for an answer. I eventually referred him to the team’s head coach, Rob Conner, in hopes that Conner would reaffirm my sentiments. The result of the meeting did the exact opposite of what I expected.

“We discussed my running background and history. Although I only ran one season in high school and even with my slow times by Division-1 standards, he mentioned that my physique looked good to be a potential long distance runner. Long story short, Conner pretty much said if I can run at least 80 miles a week, he’ll consider letting me on. So, the countdown started for me to train and make the team next year,” said Johnson.

What would happen next was the beginning of the transformation.

“This was where my naïve and inexperience became an advantage. Most runners would think running 80 plus miles a week is insane. For me, I just thought of it as normal or the minimal amount needed to be a good runner,” said Johnson. “I trained all summer and at the end I got my mileage to around 80. My 5K times also improved to 19 minutes, but the women’s team at the university could run faster than that. Not wanting to make the team look bad by having me as a slow runner join, I e-mailed Conner stating that I would like to have more time to train and improve my times before walking on. So, I skipped sophomore XC season and joined during sophomore Track season. By then, I was still slow but was able to keep up on the normal team runs. Eventually, I was able to do weekly mileages of 100 and not fade off in runs.”

Greatness Unveiled

During his first outdoor track competition as a member of the team in 2006, Johnson ran the 5,000m run (5k) in the same race as me. I went on to run a personal best of 15 minutes and 53 seconds, and Johnson finished in 16 minutes and 26 seconds. I was stunned. He had improved by over three minutes and was closing in on me.

“I was still last on the team, but it didn’t matter to me because I saw first-hand the results of my training and Conner’s coaching. It was from then on that running became my foundation and passion in life,” said Johnson.

 

Part III of the Legend of Johnson Lee will be published Wednesday, February 11th. Stay tuned for the conclusion of this hidden story now shared only on GSPN!

 

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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