Is it Harder to Get to the Top or Stay There? | A Q&A with Olympic Gold Medallist Michael Johnson

17 October 2017

We spoke to Olympic Gold medalist and former world-record holding sprinter Michael Johnson . Sharing candid stories, Michael told us he always knew he was a fast sprinter, but had no pressure to perform. Having fun turned into four Olympic Gold medals and becoming hailed as one of America's best athletes, so we caught up with him to hear how. We spoke sprinting, doping in sport, what it was like to return a medal and how he is getting on now in his next chapter as a motivational speaker.

Can you tell us about your career to date?

I started in  sports  when I was very young. As a kid, I always loved all kinds of sports, and there were always sports going on in my neighbourhood, so I could easily have fun in my childhood without any pressure. There was no pressure to achieve any kind of ‘potential’ and no one was trying to cultivate my talent –  so I was just able to have fun, but this also meant that there wasn’t an easy rise to being the best. I had a lot of setbacks and injuries. I was able to rise to these, however, and progress my career.

For 10 years, I worked as a professional athlete, won gold medals and broke records. I wanted to finish my career on top, so I did that in 2000. I knew before I finished my athletics career that I wanted to get into sports commentary and motivational speaking . I was so used to waking up every day and focusing on just one thing – how to run that little bit faster - and as much as I loved that, I was looking forward to not waking up and doing the same thing every day.

Did you always know you were a fast sprinter? How did it all begin?

I always knew I was faster than everyone else. When I was growing up, there wasn’t as much organised sport as there is now, but, any time that a race ensued, I won: whether it was against kids my age or older kids, I could always run faster than everyone. So, it was something I knew I was good at and that was all that mattered to me at that time - that was the beauty of it. There was no adult looking for the opportunity to ‘discover’ me and shepherd my career, so what I was doing was just having fun.

You won four Olympic gold medals and eight World Championship medals, as well as formerly holding the world records for the 200 and 400m. How did you stay at the top of your game for so long?

It was by doing a couple of things – firstly, there’s always that question of: is it harder to get to the top, or is it more difficult to stay on top? When I had completed the difficult journey of reaching the top, I knew that I would have to take a different approach to stay there. The more I won, the more I had to look for new ways to improve in order to continue being the best. I went for a balanced approach of being consistent with the things that worked and also tweaking things and look for opportunities to improve on a daily and weekly basis.

"There was pressure to defend my title and keep being the best. I knew I worked hard every day in training, but when the gun goes off you’re either going to be the champion or you’re not."

Of course, having a great  team  always helped too and having that desire and love for what you do is always positive too. I never lost that passion in my 10 years in the sport.

After you had won your first medals and started to make a name for yourself, did you feel pressure to defend your reputation and is so, what were your coping mechanisms for this pressure?

There was pressure to defend my title and keep being the best. I knew I worked hard every day in training, but when the gun goes off you’re either going to be the champion or you’re not, you know you have to deliver on the day. That is where the pressure comes on. You have to be in the movement and execute in that 19 seconds. But, I enjoyed that – I perform best under pressure. Of course, it is difficult, but it brought the best out of me. I worked out what I needed to do to deliver at my best when it counts – and that mostly was a high level of focus and the ability to be in the moment.

Originally you had 5 gold medals, but you returned the 2000 Sydney one for the 4 x 400m relay after Antonio Pettigrew (one of the other sprinters) admitted to doping. Can you tell us about this difficult time?

It was a difficult situation because I was already into my retirement – 8 years into it in fact - when this came about. You don’t expect to be losing a medal at this stage in your career – your reputation is solidified, your record is solidified, you’re finished and that is your career done, you don’t expect to be facing that kind of change – let alone something that major. It was hard. I have always been very against doping in sport, particularly in my sport – I wanted nothing to do with a medal that had been won unfairly, so I returned it. I got beyond it though, this is an individual sport, relays are fantastic, but you don’t build a career on from it. Nothing to do with my reputation has changed from it as a result. I would have always given the medal back.

What do you think about doping in today’s athletics?

Doping has got worse with the recent scandals – not only athletes are doping now, but institutions are too, as we have seen in Russia. It is a problem many sports face – the national  Olympic  committee will have to work harder to stop it. I don’t think it is ever realistic to expect to eradicate it in any way, there will always be a few that take the shortcut, but there is also always room for improvement.

Working as a successful sports commentator now, and watching sport, do you ever feel the desire to return to the track?

No, I’m very fortunate about this. I was able to do everything I wanted to do when I was competing and that was why I was happy with my decision to leave in 2000. I was able to leave on my own terms and leave on top, so I have no desire to go back and no unfinished business to complete. Also, I like what I do now and the new challenges that poses.

"If you are looking to pursue any career, then make sure it is what you really enjoy and have a passion for."

What are you most proud of in your career?

With all of the things I have done, it is well documented that I am the best ever. Not only in my sprinting career, but I have won awards in my TV career too, and I have been successful as a motivational speaker. So, I am proud of the opportunity I have to share experiences with people to help them increase their performance too.

What is your top motivational tip for today’s young sprinters?

For any young person, the main thing is to try lots of things to see what you enjoy. If you are looking to pursue any career, then make sure it is what you really enjoy and have a passion for.

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