Ready for Rio
After missing her chance as an Olympic athlete, alumna Robyne Johnson
will coach the U.S. Women’s Track & Field team at the 2016 games in Brazil
Robyne Johnson’s success as an athlete started as a Hayward youngster, who ran track for the Berkeley East Bay Track Club, and then followed in the footsteps of her father and aunt, both track and field athletes at then-Cal State Hayward. “I’ve been around Cal State my entire life,” Johnson says. “My father (Sylvester Johnson) worked there after he went to school, and then I grew up around my aunt (Lessie Johnson) and all her friends, including Olympians Marilyn (King, BS ’73, Physical Education) and Maren (Seidler, ’72). And my coach from Berkeley High (Coach Willie White) went on to Cal State and had a lot of success there. I pretty much knew everyone who was there during that (top-Division II) era.”
Robyne Johnson indeed has a storied career in the triple jump, including being an All-American five times at the University of Texas at Austin, ranked a top 10 jumper in the U.S. for a solid decade, and a former American record holder. While she shared the Olympic dreams of most elite athletes and participated in four Olympic trials, it wasn’t meant to be: She came up short in 1988; in 1992, she made the team, but hang-ups in adding the triple jump to the Olympic field events stamped out her hopes; in 1996, Johnson shares that the death of her mother took a toll on her focus; and she was a near miss for the 2000 games.
Now, as director of a winning Division I track and field program at Boston University — her women’s team has amassed five America East championships, including the 2012 title, and Patriot League titles in 2014 and 2015 — she has been tapped to fill the role of assistant track and field coach (jumps/combined events) for the U.S. Women’s Team in Rio de Janeiro. “This, in essence, is my Olympics as well,” Johnson says.
East Bay Today: What does it mean to you to represent the United States
on the international stage?
Robyne Johnson: I’ve represented the United States on several other teams, as an athlete and coach, but this is by far the biggest of my accomplishments in terms of being on the Olympic staff. It’s a bucket list item, you know? If you think about it, [there are fewer] Olympic coaches than athletes, so it’s a rarer group.
EBT: What’s your approach as a coach?
RJ: I like to win. I’m not an overly ‘rah-rah’ kind of a coach. We’re going to work hard. I know what it takes to get people to their successes, and I hope that’s everybody’s goal. I’m a pretty calm person, I don’t go nuts over every little thing, and I think my athletes appreciate that. I’m not up and down — we’re just going to keep it right here and work.
Forever pioneer weekend
EBT: Is it different coaching Olympians compared to your college students?
RJ: I don't think so. At the end of the day, it’s still a track meet — the greatest track meet in the world, but let’s keep it simple. I tell kids, ‘If you do what you did to get here, you’re probably going to be pretty successful.’
EBT: What is the pressure like for the women on the U.S. team?
RJ: The hardest part, I feel, of making the U.S. team is making the U.S. team. If you’re not in the top 3 [at the Olympic Trials] on that given day, you don’t go. It’s brutal. It’s very cutthroat. For them to do that — if they can do that — then I’m feeling pretty good about their Olympic chances.
EBT: What keeps you up at night?
RJ: I don’t know if [the job] keeps me up at night because, you know (laughs), we’re pretty confident that we have one of the best track teams in the world. And actually, we have the best track team in the world. It’s the little things though — we’re making sure they have their number, their spikes, they make it to the track on time. If you don’t have that stuff when you show up, it doesn’t matter.
EBT: Who should we be watching this time?
RJ: I’m partial to the triple-long jump because that was my event … but I really do believe this is going to be a great Olympics for our entire team and really show how well-rounded we are. [But] we have our natural stars that stick out, like Allyson Felix, who’s a defending Olympic gold medalist, Justin Gatlin (gold medal, 100-meter dash, 2004) — some of the typical ones kind of jump out at you.
But this year we have a couple of high schoolers who’ve made our team. Vashtai Cunningham in the high jump … and Sydney McLaughlin (400-meter, youngest qualifier since 1980) is only a junior in high school and she made the Olympic team. We’re going to give you some new household names to think about as we move forward in this Olympiad.
EBT: What’s the vibe like among the team?
RJ: We support competitiveness. They’re all, you know, good enough friends until the gun goes off. And that’s what we teach our kids all throughout their track and field careers — when it’s time to compete, there are no friends. Once you cross the line, then you can be friends again. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
EBT: What’s your advice to the athletes that don’t take home a medal?
RJ: They’re among the elite athletes in their field — the top three in the country. It was a great showing and they should be proud. Clearly, the objective is to get on that podium. But keep striving, keep working hard. And at the end of the day, once an Olympian, always an Olympian.
EBT: Any concerns about traveling to Rio?
RJ: Initially, I think everyone had concerns. But what hasn’t been said a lot is that once we get to Rio, it will be the winter months, so the mosquito population is lower. But I go on the CDC website and you know, we’ve gotten all the vaccines we needed to get. And we need to wear DEET and insect repellant at all times. I think the bigger concern is not getting into the water. But we’ve been well informed and we have several people on the ground when we get there — our medical staff, the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) — we’re in a good spot moving forward.
EBT: How did Cal State East Bay support your success?
RJ: I’m not sure (laughs) I’m yet accustomed to the name (change) yet, but I did my master’s work there and just coming up to the campus, driving up in the evenings — the peacefulness of it and being able to get my work done and the sense of accomplishment I got from completing my degree there. And also, having grown up around Cal State and the memories, and knowing some of the professors since I was a child — it just made it all come full circle when I was able to finish my education there. Cal State will always have a place in my heart.