A TRIBUTE TO A LEGEND
Back in 2001 I strolled into an early morning swim practice at my favorite pool at the University of Miami bleary eyed yet excited about the workout ahead. As I started some dry land warm up exercises I noticed a Cannondale Tri bike leaning against the wall but something stood out about the bike. Being an addict of everything triathlon I saw a unique Hawaiian flower paint scheme on the bike and remembered reading that only sponsored Professional athletes received this bike. There was someone big swimming in the pool but who? Miami is not really a Boulder or San Diego so Professionals aren’t routinely training here. Then I scanned the pool and of course there was one swimmer gracefully moving faster than all the others. I jumped in the water and did my own workout feeling like a barge next to this fast moving fish of an athlete. Every lap I would try to catch a glimpse of who this lean speed machine was in the lane next to me. His turns were as fast as a finger snap and his strokes as long as the lane it seemed. The workout ended and I jumped out as did this mystery swimmer. As we were both on deck I noticed his name on the back of his swimsuit. ‘Johns’ it read. Now I knew. This was not some poser who wanted to look Pro. I remembered back to my first days of triathlon and reading vigorously the British triathlon magazine, 220. It all came together. This was Olympian Andrew “AJ” Johns. Images and memories of his race results from the magazine stormed into my head. I walked over and said I recognized him and that it was great to meet an athlete of his caliber and resume. Then I saw his huge smile and friendly demeanor and we started to chat. I did not know it then but meeting AJ would change me as a person, an athlete, a coach and also help reshape mine and my wife Erinne’s business for a long time. AJ was without pretense, uber friendly and eager to chat about anything. We spoke for a while and he was in town to try out a new running program based out of Miami. I told him if he ever wanted to head out for a ride or grab dinner it would be my honor and to my surprise he was eager to ride the next day.
We met early the next day for a quick ride and talked the whole time. I had so many questions. Here was a guy who spent many seasons ranked number one in the world, went to the Olympics in Sydney and more importantly was just a nice guy. Sometimes there are people in this world you just click with and AJ always had me smiling and laughing. I told him he had to have dinner with my wife and I and of course he couldn’t have been happier. My wife and I went to his hotel that evening to pick him up and it was a horrendous dump I couldn’t see fitting one of the fastest triathletes in the world. After dinner I told him that he had to get out of the hotel and he could stay with us. To our surprise he said, “Sure Mate, I’d love to.” A little background on AJ. He was born in the UK but moved to Australia at a young age and went to school and university there where he played volleyball competitively. Some friends were doing tri’s and he decided to give it a shot. After some months of training and racing he was good enough to race as a professional. Triathlon was just heating up down under and AJ was fast becoming a star. He won the European Championships and was now travelling the world as a Professional athlete.
Erinne and I still to this day say AJ was the world’s best house guest. He cleaned up after himself and us routinely, cooked meals and overall was just a pleasant guy. He lived with us for close to four months and he showed me how to have fun with the sport that had become such work for me. AJ also introduced us to Swiss Museli which to this day is one of my favorite foods. AJ continued to train hard and even though I was nowhere near his ability we did head out to many sessions together and had hours of good conversations. His stories were the best and I loved hearing the tales from when he was racing at the top in the nineties and I could remember reading about the races he was now telling me about. The great races were with the famous names Beven, Bright, Lessing and more. The very best thing was always AJ’s interest in what others were doing and how they were. He was the first person to ask how my training was going or how a certain race went. And he meant it. AJ’s girlfriend Lisbeth came over and stayed with us as well. I didn’t get to know her too well as her stay was short but her energy was positive and she was just as lovely as AJ. Not only that but she had also recently won the ITU Long Course World Champs. A true great match up was growing.
Over the next few years we kept in good touch as AJ and Lisbeth lived half the year in Switzerland and half the year in Australia. I kept up on their race results including AJ getting a third at the ITU World Champs. I remember turning on the TV at around 3am to watch the Men’s Olympic triathlon from Athens and AJ was the first shot I saw. Unfortunately it was not to be his day as cramps led to a poor result. He had beaten the top three guys many times in the past but his second Olympic games would prove to be his last Olympic games. Time went on and AJ would always stay with us when he was in town and we would catch up. Erinne, AJ and I always had huge laughs with him as we watch him race all over the country.
In 2005 I received a call from AJ asking me to manage Lisbeth as she was really starting to show some nice results. I jumped on the chance and began working feverishly on sponsors and the like. In less then a month I had her all sorted out for the upcoming Ironman season. We all met at the 2006 IM Hawaii which they were both racing. It was AJ’s first Ironman and we all stayed together which to this day is one of the best trips I have ever been on. Lisbeth would wind up leading the race until mile 16 on the run and AJ finished his first IM Hawaii in 8:43 with a 23rd place. As he said, “I’m not used to running around in 23rd place, I don’t like it very much.” He was astonished at how difficult it could be saying surprisingly, “You wouldn’t believe it Mate but I had some awful seven minute miles.” This was tough for him to grasp after a dozen years of running five minute miles. That was a great trip for sure.
As a year went by I started helping AJ out with sponsors, logistics, race appearances and guidance where I could and he had some ups and downs. His back started acting up on him requiring a lot of pain management and physio therapy but he continued to train and race with the best in the world. Erinne, myself and our little one year old girl went and visited AJ and Lisbeth in Switzerland for a week and had a ball with them. Pictures of that trip are here. http://www.bodyzen.com/htmlsite/swisstrip.html
AJ and I even went and raced at the Geneva Triathlon where he won the race and I was happy to finish. We had tons of good food and it was nice to see AJ and Lisbeth building a life for themselves in a great little town. You can tell a lot about people by how others react to them and whenever people saw AJ there smiles lit up and happiness showed. AJ brings it out in people, athlete or not.
In 2008 I spent another week by myself training in Switzerland with AJ and Lisbeth and more good times were had. The easy runs on the trail there were filled with more great stories of the past. A month later I went to work with them as the raced IM Louisville. Lisbeth was nine months post partum after giving birth to their first child. A beautiful little girl named Astrid. Lisbeth ended up fourth. A tough day but she persevered. As AJ was leading the race his back locked up and he never finished. It was to be his last triathlon ever. The back issues and years of racing had come to an end. We had many conversations about it but he was happy to just quietly retire. I had a conversation with him about how an athlete of his caliber and with his results should announce that he was retiring and let the industry know. He was after all ranked number one for many years with two Olympic games under his belt. He wasn’t to have anything like that. He said no fuss at all was to be made and this was classic AJ. He never raced for others only for himself and he didn’t need the spotlight or attention. He quietly works for a company in Perth, Autralia and travels with Lisbeth to races to be the number one dad now and not the number one athlete. If you ever have the opportunity to meet AJ you will smile and be greeted with such energy that you will feel that you are number one just like this past champion. I always do!
I continue to work with Lisbeth and we all keep in touch every week or two. Great to know that this great couple are lifelong friends.