Athletics: Johnson takes unconventional route to join the sprinters' élite

The fastest man in the world this year has no shoe contract, and there is none on the horizon, but Patrick Johnson has more pressing matters on his mind. The first Australian to run 100 metres in less than 10 seconds, Johnson is convinced he can it mix with the best, and he is determined to prove it at the World Championships in Paris in August.

Breaking the 10-second barrier is still an extraordinary feat, achieved by only a handful of élite sprinters. Johnson did it at the age of 30, after running seriously for only six years. His time of 9.93sec, recorded last month in Mito, Japan, was the 17th fastest in history.

For Australia, it meant the end of a mortifyingly long wait to join the sub-10 second club. For Johnson, too, it was a watershed, allowing him to draw a line under a succession of injury-plagued seasons and silence critics who whispered that he was physically not capable of it.

Johnson is now focused on winning a place in the 100m and 200m finals in Paris, and in Athens next year. A week after Mito, he sent a signal to his far better known competitors when he was beaten into second place, by just a hundredth of a second, by the world record holder, Tim Montgomery, at a meet in Osaka. This time he ran in 10.05.

"I feel this is the tip of the iceberg," he said at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra last week, just before leaving for Europe. "I'm planning to step up to the next level and run even faster." Johnson's background is unconventional, to say the least. He was born on a speedboat that was taking his Aboriginal mother, Pearl, to hospital after she went into labour unexpectedly. She died in a car accident when he was 18 months old; he spent his childhood sailing up and down the Queensland coast with his Irish fisherman father, Patrick.

When Patrick Snr wanted to snatch forty winks, he would hand the boy the wheel of his trawler. "Living on a boat, taking responsibility for your own actions in life and death situations, you grow up fast," said Johnson. His father recognised his talent early on, betting beers with Queensland pub patrons that the seven-year-old could outrun them. He was given Cokes as a reward.

Johnson went to boarding school in Canberra, where he discovered a love of sprinting. But it remained a hobby until he competed "for fun" in the 100m at the 1996 Australian University Games, winning in 10.47. He was spotted there by Esa Peltola, a Finnish coach, who persuaded him to take up an athletics scholarship at the AIS.

Johnson turned down offers of lucrative rugby league contracts, but a series of injuries prevented him from qualifying for individual sprint events at the last two World Championships and the last two Commonwealth Games. Injured once again in the run-up to the Sydney Olympics, he was knocked out in the quarter-finals of the 100m and 200m.

But for the past year he has been injury-free, and he now looks like a credible medal contender in Paris. Can he stand the pressure, in a sport dominated by the likes of Maurice Greene, the Olympic champion, and Montgomery, who chalked up 9.78 at the Paris Grand Prix last year? Introverted and quietly spoken, Johnson is a very different type. But he is unusually well-balanced and mature. Employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs, he hopes for a diplomatic posting after he retires from athletics. He speaks several languages and is studying part-time for an international relations degree.

Peltola said: "He has a rare ability to embrace new ideas and drive towards excellence. I don't know exactly how fast he can run, but I'm certain that he can run faster than he's doing now." Johnson agrees he is single-minded. "Anything I do, I put 120 per cent into it, and no regrets." Of his flashier rivals, he said: "I'm hoping they'll get caught up in themselves and forget about me, and I'll just slip off the radar." He also claims that his age is no impediment. "I don't see myself as old," he said. "I never set any limit on what I can achieve." Could he win an Olympic medal? "I'm looking at getting to the finals. Once you're in that situation, anything can happen." On the absence of sponsors, Johnson said: "For me, it's not about money. It's about personal achievement, challenging myself and testing my abilities. Some people fear the unknown; I love the unknown, because then I can conquer it. That's what sprinting is about for me: how fast can the human person run?"

Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there