Back Where He Belongs: Jamel Johnson On Appreciating the Moment

jamel johnson, marines greco-roman
Jamel Johnson -- Photo: Tim Hipps

What holds the most currency in a sport overrun by clichés? Is it discipline? The “grind” everyone feels the need to talk about? Sacrifice? What’s on your list? Is goal-setting checked off? Make sure that it is, lest you become relegated to the laughter of your wrestling peers should an objective-driven mantra of some sort not be on a meme thumb-tacked to your bedroom wall.

It’s not that 2012 University World bronze medalist Jamel Johnson (66 kg, Marines) doesn’t subscribe to all of the above. He does, and then some. But what comes first on his list is loyalty. Johnson never once used that word throughout this hour-plus conversation, though the overwhelming majority of what he said points in that direction. The object of his loyalty, esteemed Marine Corps head coach Jason Loukides, seems to elicit that feeling amongst his charges, but with Johnson there’s a different vibe. You detect love, the kind of love a wrestler can have for a coach that goes beyond box scores and medal stands and pats on the shoulder after hard wins and harder losses. Loukides wasn’t supposed to be the principal topic here, of course. But with Johnson, you don’t have a choice. You want to talk to him? Fine, but he’s going to talk about how much Loukides has meant to his career. It has to be that way.

But Johnson is an interesting case nonetheless. Following that University bronze, he further stamped down his spot in the US pecking order with strong performances at plenty of other events, including the Pan Ams in 2013 and a near-medal showing at the Military Worlds a year later. After that, the road to Senior World success hit some bumps. Johnson enrolled in the Army and its World Class Athletes Program, a move that at the time seemed logical but maybe wasn’t the best place for him right then. He had trouble seeing himself as a budding star in a room crammed with supernovas. It hindered his trajectory, made him question his skill and potential to be an Olympic champ. Johnson needed to regain his confidence, he needed to be pushed by a comforting voice, he needed to find what made him such a white-hot prospect to begin with.

He needed Loukides.

Johnson transitioned out of the Army program last year and into the Marine Corps. Continuing on with his service to the country was and is important to him, but he’s an athlete, a professional, and desired the opportunity to finish out his career with the man he credits for starting it. So far, the reconnection looks promising. Following a 17-month layoff, Johnson returned to competition last month at the Dave Schultz Memorial and picked up a bronze. He says he only trained for two weeks prior to the event, another example of what this wrestler can do when unleashed, or a mere tease of what Johnson should be capable of if he has more time to prepare. That’s part of his story, too.

He’s a father, a husband, a family man. Johnson, at 26, also thinks he’s old. He’s not. But he is mature, and with maturity arrives the understanding that there is a cap over his head. Johnson won’t be an active Greco-Roman wrestler forever. Probably. Which is why he is drop-dead devoted to making this all count for something. It’s as if for the first time in awhile, when he breathes in, he wants to hold the air in his lungs a little longer, savoring the oxygen and its rejuvenating properties.

Is he back where he belongs? Maybe. Johnson would likely agree with that. But more than anything, it is who he belongs with that has him excited to be back.

5PM Interview with Jamel Johnson

5PM: You earned a bronze at the University Worlds what was early on in your Greco career. At the time, what did you think that was going to represent towards your future in the sport?

Jamel Johnson: Really, just my capability. Obviously, at that time, I feel like I was definitely overlooked, but I understand that results speak louder than words. There, I was just super-happy to win a medal and have people understand. I was invited to different tournaments. Winning that medal allowed me to get invited to the Pan American Championships the following year, and I won a bronze there.

But yeah, I was just super happy to do that, put YES Wrestling on the board, and show people what type of coach Jason Loukides is. Because it’s not solely just me representing and winning that medal, it was Jason Loukides, Caylor Williams, Santonio Thompson, and Terrance Zaleski, who is actually now with the Marines, also. We trained day-in and day-out and Coach Loukides took care of us out of his own pocket, and it was really good to see the results come through.

5PM: As you progressed through the proceeding couple of years, there were changes both on and off the mat. The rules changed, the weight classes, some longstanding competitors stepped away. How did you see your career at this point as it was really starting to develop?

JJ: Well, I think the biggest thing was Loukides really pushing me and being constantly challenged in the room. He would make me be two points down, we’d start the match that way. You’re two points down, you have six minutes and you’ve got to win, or I’m winning and he’s coming over there and he’d say, Hey, you just got turned, you have to come back from that. He would constantly challenge me to make sure that I progressed. At the time, I was making the decision to go to the Army team and he knew that I had to step my game up, because those guys were fricking phenomenal. You had Olympians and World Champions over there, so he was constantly pushing me and pushing me, making sure that I was being challenged in the room. If I was beating up guys, he’d change it to a situation where I was losing, that way I would be mentally and physically tough enough to come back.

It was definitely hard, too, because I was fairly progressing, fairly progressing, and then I didn’t do that well at Oklahoma, the World Team Trials, and then right after that I went to the Army basic training. You take two months off and after that you go to your MOS school, and I was there for about three months, and then I came back and wrestled. It was definitely hard getting back, especially being the runt of the weight class at 66 kilograms. I was used to wrestling at 60, but when I came back, the weight class changed, there was no way I was making 59, and I was like, Oh man, now I have to wrestle 66. I was weighing 66 kilograms, you know?

5PM: How has fatherhood changed your perspective on your career?

JJ: I try to enjoy the competitions a little bit more. A lot of people get wrapped up in the wins and losses, but at the same time, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to wrestle and support my family, and for the military to allow me to do this. I definitely thank the Army and now the Marine Corps for allowing me to do this. But definitely, fatherhood helps me enjoy the little moments more. And, it also helps you pick yourself up a lot faster. Let’s say you have a crappy tournament. Then you’re sulking on it and you come back to practice and you’re bitter — kids don’t care (laughs). Kids don’t care that you got beat, they’re just like, Hey daddy, wanna play? It makes you get over those humps a lot faster. I think it has actually helped me because I can’t sit here and sulk in my room, my kids want to play kickball, play with daddy, or roll around, so it makes me get over things faster.

5PM: What was the genesis behind the switch over from the Army to the Marine Corps?

Jamel Johnson: Well, to be honest, my contract was coming to a close and I felt like I wasn’t growing. I wasn’t growing as a wrestler anymore, you know? I felt like I wasn’t growing and that I was getting old. I don’t know if this is going to be my last try, but with my kids getting older and me getting older, I wanted to make sure that for Tokyo I was ready with my development and I knew that I had to get back with Coach Loukides, which brings me back to the World Championships. It wasn’t just me who did that. Yeah, it was me out there who won the medal, but it was me and him. Even though he wasn’t there, he was the one who was coaching me, he knows how my mind works, he understands me.

It just got to a point where I wasn’t getting the results that I needed. It wasn’t anything that the Army coaches did, it was just me. I needed a person who could reach me and Loukides was it. He has a rapport with me that’s different from any other coach.

It’s kind of like, you have a dad. You grow up and when you go into the Army, those coaches are kind of like your step-dad. They understand, but at the same time, they’re also coaching Olympians and World Champions. They were just at a way higher level than I was at that time and I couldn’t get there the way that they wanted me to, so I just needed to go back to Coach Loukides. I felt that was the best move for me to make.

5PM: You have a relationship with Loukides that precedes the Marine Corps, but every Marine athlete I talk to is like, completely crazy about that guy. What makes Loukides so special?

JJ: He cares about you. He understands that obviously, people want to win. But at the end of the day, you have to care about the individual.

For example, right now we have about five wrestlers in Russia. One of them, Zaleski, was with me at Officer Basic School, he doesn’t have my situation, he doesn’t have any kids, he doesn’t have the same responsibilities. Take me for instance, I’ve been gone with him for about nine months training, I have barely gotten to see my family, so he (Loukides) understands that me coming back and then going straight off to Russia isn’t going to make me happy and isn’t going to make me a better wrestler at this moment in time.

He understands people and he treats everybody differently. Terrance? Terrance comes back, Loukides is like, Take off for Russia, go wrestle in Russia. He sent me to Colorado because it’s a three-day trip and I come back, and I’m wrestling here twice a day, but I also get to rebuild that foundation with my family. He understands that and he treats everybody according to their situation. He doesn’t treat any two people the same because you just can’t do that.

That’s what I love about the guy. He understands people and he genuinely cares about people, and how that works out. Even though I’m wrestling for him, he also genuinely wants my Marine Corps career to prosper along with my wrestling career. He’s not selfish in any way to where he’s like, I don’t care what you do in the Marine Corps, that’s on you, you’re here to wrestle. He’s not like that, he wants both aspects to prosper. Whatever is better for me, even if that means focusing on becoming a better Marine Corps officer, he’s not going to have any hard feelings.  He doesn’t care about stuff like that.

But he cares about winning just like everybody else. I don’t know, it’s hard, he’s just such a great guy…

5PM: He doesn’t care about winning at the expense of say, your emotional or physical health.

JJ: Exactly. If something is wrong at the house or your family needs you, things like that.

You have to understand that this is the same guy who when the UNCG (University of North Carolina-Greensboro) program was canceled, he took it upon himself — he could have went to coach anywhere, anywhere he wanted to — but he took it upon himself while everybody was in the room and was like, Hey, who wants to keep wrestling? A couple of us raised our hands, a couple of us didn’t. But he made sure people went off to different schools, Purdue, a couple of guys went to Pembroke, just whatever they wanted to do. And then those few, myself being one, were like, I started with you, I kind of want to finish it with you. He was like, Fine.

I think it was two months or a month and a half later, he called us up and said, “I’ve got a gym.” So we go into this gym, it was old, rundown, I think it was like an old truck station or something. He bought mats, he bought weights, gear, he had his wife’s brother put a shower in — all on his own time!  He had a wife and kid, a wife and kid, but he’s the type of person who is like, No, you guys stay here and wrestle and I’m going to be here for you. He flew us to Texas, New York, Florida, all over the place, out of his own pocket (laughs).

When you have someone doing that for you and on top of that they believe in you, you’re going to wrestle unbelievably. When you go out there on the mat and then look in your corner, you know this guy has got your back. It’s like, Come on, it’s Loukides! You better sack the fuck up and get the win! When I was going over to the Schultz, he said, “Have fun.” But in my head, I was like, I’m bringing you back a fucking medal. He has a bunch of stuff that I have won. Whenever I get an award from a big event, I give it to him, but I told him I am going to keep the Olympic medal, though (laughs).

I do it because it’s not just me out there. I am a representation of him, and I just try to portray that as best as I can on the mat.

5PM: You had been pretty much off the mat for most of 2016 because of your move over to the Marine Corps. Although that was probably not ideal for you at this stage of your competitive career, I wonder if it was the most fortuitous time possible since it was breaking open a new quad. 

JJ: Oh, 100%, definitely, that was the whole reason I went over, to start this next quad up. You don’t want to do that, go to all of these military schools in the middle of a quad and then come back, you don’t want to do that to yourself. It was timing, I just felt like that was the right time to do it.

5PM: The last thing on the dial was the Schultz. When I saw your name entered in, I figured you to be in the argument somewhere. I’ll give you my takeaway and you react to it. I don’t know if there was rust, there probably was. Even if, you wound up getting to a confident place and began wrestling well. You end up grinding out a tough win over Brandon Mueller for bronze. After all this upheaval in your life, going from one branch to another, a long layoff, what was your assessment. Were you pleased, disappointed, what?

JJ: Hmmm. I was content. I didn’t win, so I wasn’t pleased, but I was satisfied, I was content because it was like a “that’ll do” type of tournament for now, you know? It was like, That’ll do, and it kind of solidified to me that I’m not washed up (laughs). I still have some juice in me. But yeah, That’ll do. I only practiced for two weeks before that tournament. I had just returned from Basic Officer School. I got back, checked into the unit, was running around, moving my kids down here, all of this other stuff, and then I was like, Finally. I started practicing and when I get there, Loukides tells me, “You’re going to wrestle at Schultz.” I laughed. The great thing about Loukides is that he said, “Hey, it’s just a tournament, there’s no pressure, I’m not expecting the world out of you right now. Obviously, I want you to win…” — he made sure he put that on me (laughs). But he wanted me to have fun, he knew I had been off.

But it felt good to compete in my first tournament for the Marine Corps and have something to show for it. What I think kept me in a good headspace was my officer schooling. That is no joke whatsoever. They test you mentally, physically, and I think it kept me in a good headspace competitively because you’re competing against other officers on runs, for test scores, combat tactics, and all types of stuff. I had been in a competitive mindset, I got better mentally and physically, so I was prepared competitively for the Dave Schultz tournament.

So yeah, that was all that was to me. I was happy I got a medal, but it was more, That’ll do.

5PM: You said “fun.” Did you have fun wrestling?

JJ: Oh, hell yeah (laughs). I told Loukides, as soon as we weighed in, my heart was thumping out of my chest — but not because I was nervous. I was just so excited to be back on the mat, to be back in Colorado, it’s an international tournament, and I was just super-excited to have a foreigner right out of the gate, though that didn’t go well (laughs). But I was super-excited for that match, I knew that there was no pressure because we didn’t care about results for that tournament on that day. I was happy, I was super-happy, it even carried over into the next day. No one saw me, but I was in the back corner just bumping my music and dancing, enjoying it. I was just having fun, man.

5PM: We have a gap in the schedule domestically which I would imagine isn’t fantastic for someone who is looking to jump back into competition. Right now, what are your plans for when the calendar flips to 2018 and leading up to the spring for the Open and the Trials?

Jamel Johnson: To be honest, I have to go back to school. This will be my last school. I have to go back to school in January for what I believe is two and a half months. I will be practicing once a day, but I am pretty sure Loukides will be able to get what he needs out of me so I can maintain. It goes back to what I said earlier, it’s about constantly pushing yourself in the room. I’ll come into the room and he will give me a really hard station or be really killing me with drills or something else, because you have to make the most out of your situation in the Marine Corps, or with any other type of military sport. At the same time, you’re a Marine first — obviously — and then you’re a wrestler.

Once I get back from school, I’ll be going 24/7 wrestling again. I don’t think the school is going to hurt me whatsoever, because dude, I’m getting old in wrestling years. I’m 26, I’ll be turning 27, I’m getting old and one-a-days I’m not going to complain about because my body is hurting. But Loukides is training me right now like I’m 18-years-old (laughs). But yeah, it’s going to be a little spotty right now because I have to leave for school and after that is over, I will be able to train specifically. That’s just how it is. It’s the military and I have to get the school done.










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