Patrick Johnson: Unfinished Business

Johnson’s brave new focus to be the world’s best
Rebecca Wiasak
Monday, 23 January 2006

Patrick Johnson is the fastest man in Australia, and he has unfinished business.
He set the national record 9.93sec in Japan in 2003 and placed sixth at the World Athletics Championships in Finland last year.

But according to Johnson, 33, the best is yet to come.

And if everything runs to plan in less than two months, he will have eclipsed the national record, added a Commonwealth Games individual medal to the collection and re-confirmed his official status a the world’s best sprinter, three years after his international No1 ranking.

“I have to believe that I can run faster than I have ever run in my life,” Johnson says.

“Anything is possible for me and at this stage I’m not putting any limits on my ability.”

According to Johnson, a Commonwealth Games at home ranks alongside an Olympic or world championship competition. The pressure is still there, so too the expectation.

For Johnson, the Commonwealth Games represents the best sprinters in the world, minus the Americans, but the absence of the US team doesn’t make his task any easier.

There will be 100m heats on March 19, semi-finals the following day and the final several hours later on March 20. Johnson will get a one-day break before the 200m heat on March 22.

Both semi and final are scheduled for March 23 and the 4x100m relay heats and final follow on March 24 and 25.

But first Johnson must make the team.

At the Australian trials four years ago, before the Manchester Commonwealth Games, he placed fourth and was overlooked by selectors for the 100m despite recording the minimum ‘B’ qualification standard.

As a consolation he was chosen to run a 4x100m relay and the team of David Baxter, Paul Di Bella and Tim Williams progressed to the final and won a bronze medal behind England and Jamaica.

Athletics Australia has a stringent nomination policy for selection in major international competition.

In 2002 its philosophy followed selection of athletes who were capable of finishing in the top 16 on the world level, regardless of having attained the required qualification standards.

As a result, no male sprinters competed for Australia in the 100m or 200m events.

This year there are already four athletes on the list of qualifiers for each sprint distance.

Johnson appears on both having bettered the ‘A’ standard, but as he has discovered there are no guarantees.

“Like everything you can post the times but it’s all about getting through the season,” he says.

"That’s the key issue at this stage.

“I’ve always been able to post times but it’s about being consistent.”

There is preselection, automatic selection and, of course, the lifeline through the discretion of selectors.

A top-three finish in both events at the trials in Sydney from February 2-5, would suffice for Johnson and despite a host of hopefuls hot on his heels, a fourth place is unlikely.

“I don’t think that will happen, not the way I’m running,” Johnson says.

"Personally for me it’s unfinished business. Sydney [Olympics] was too early for me and Commonwealth Games of course, I didn’t get selected and I’ve gone through the ups and downs and the trials and tribulations of athletics it throws at me.

“I’ve got unfinished business and I won’t stop until I’ve done what I need to do.”

It was a lonely silhouette cast across the Australian Institute of Sport track when Johnson led the world stage.

Coached by AIS physiologist Esa Peltola, most training sessions were completed solo and secrecy surrounded the sprinter as sports scientists scrutinised his winning technique.

In 2004, after badly injuring his hamstring and having missed the domestic season, Johnson realised it would take a fresh approach to regain his best form.

He split with Peltola, approached AIS high-performance manager Tudor Bidder to critique his program and enlisted the support of training partners to keep him inspired.

Athens Olympian Adam Miller, 21, was the first to join the new sprinting stable. Twice-retired Daniel Batman, 24, was next to test in the Canberra squad and was offered a full-scholarship two years after he walked out on his previous AIS scholarship position.

The trio has already set qualifying standards in the sprint double and could fill the three Commonwealth Games positions.

But this time there is no mystery.

“This is a new era,” Johnson declares. "Australians have got to work together to be competitive against the rest of the world.

"We can’t be satisfied best in the states, we’ve got to be best in Australia but then also best in the world and I think this is the first stepping stone.

“The door is always open for any of the guys to come down and train with us.”

Johnson says that in the past there was a counterproductive competitive streak between key Australian training squads. He believed better results came from competition within the squad.

“I’m using the same principles the best in the world use. They have about five or six guys to train against and that’s how they get better,” he says. “There aren’t many world-best athletes who train with no training partners. If you see most of the best sprinters, they’ve all got a good group together so that’s what I’m trying to do here.”

Despite having represented Australia seven times, Johnson maintains he is a typical Aussie battler.

Born in Cairns, Johnson spent a now infamous nomadic childhood raised on a fishing trawler.

His first athletic meet was in October 1996 when he won the 100m at Australian University Games in Canberra.

Ten years later, he is still in Canberra, has a well-worn student card for the Australian National University and remains employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs, despite spending most of his time on an athletics track.

The full-time athlete is studying international relations part-time and has flexible work hours as an administration officer but being an elite athlete will remain his priority.

“It’s pretty difficult with six hours a day of training and trying to combine everything but there’s a time and place for everything they say,” Johnson says.

“I’ve still got the student card and it’s getting a bit worn, but I’ve just got to keep at it. I think the main thing is just to battle on. That’s been my nickname, ‘The Battler’, just getting through all the ups and downs of track and field.”

While Johnson is continuing his battle to finish business on the track before the Melbourne Games, he is confident of coming up at the right time.

“If I need to do it, I do it,” he says.