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?"

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