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    Former UK Wrestler Takes Long Route To Olympics

    By: Mark Maloney
    SEC Digital Network

    LONDON — James Johnson’s route to the Olympics has been more "Tube," as the London subway system is commonly called, than the Olympic city’s high-speed Javelin train.

    Yet, here he is, nearly 30 years after his alma mater -- Kentucky -- dropped wrestling as a varsity sport, coaching Greco-Roman wrestlers for Team USA in the London Olympics.

    "A great experience," Johnson said Monday in the ExCeL Centre warmup area. "I’m just amazed by all the incredible athletes that are here and the things that go on. We’ve had two tough days in the arena. ... We’ve had some close matches that have not gone our way. So we’ll have another opportunity (Tuesday) in 66-kilo with Justin Lester. I’m faithful that he can get a medal tomorrow for the United States."

    Lester is Team USA’s last Greco-Roman hope in London. The Americans are 0-for-5 in the medal hunt so far, with three wrestlers shut out Monday.

    "You have a lot of (past) Olympians, a lot of World Champions that come here and then going home with nothing," Johnson said. "Everyone tends to step up their game to a different level. It’s a magical moment when you get to the Olympics, and you have to really push yourself beyond your imagination to the next level -- to be either gold, silver or bronze."

    Johnson completed his collegiate career at Kentucky in 1981, two years before the Wildcats program ended.

    He started every season as a 190-pounder at UK, going 65-21. Twice he won the Southern Open and was a three-time SEC medalist.

    Wrestling was big in the Southeastern Conference then. Now, the only SEC school with varsity wrestling is conference newcomer Missouri.

    Johnson’s greatest success on the mat came as a post-collegiate competitor in Greco-Roman. In the discipline that bars holds below the waist, he became a three-time national champion and four-time World Cup medalist, wrestling at 100 kilograms (220 pounds).

    He just missed making the Olympic team as a competitor, a runner-up in the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials.

    He wrestled on the National Team for 12 years, winning two Pan American Championships and twice in the famed Andre Guerin meet.

    He now lives in Phoenix, where he has been coach of the Sunkist Kids for the last nine years.

    He served as a World Team coach last year at Istanbul, Turkey. He was also on the 2009 World Team staff and about a dozen international tours in the last seven years.

    Johnson was at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in an unofficial capacity.

    His path to the Olympics began more than 30 years ago, then nurtured at Kentucky.

    "When I was wrestling at the University of Kentucky, I got recruited there virtually as an unknown kid out of North Carolina, and I had really great career there," Johnson said. "Going through the Southeastern Conference ... whether it’s basketball or football or (other) sports there, it’s just such a tough conference. The mental grind of it. We had schools when I was competing -- the LSUs, the Floridas, the Georgias, the Tennessees -- we were canceling each other out sometimes to qualify to get to the next level. So it’s a prestigious conference. I hold it dear to my heart. Everybody can debate, but the Southeastern Conference is THE conference.

    "I would love to see wrestling back in the Southeastern Conference. ... It is a prestigious sport and it’s the oldest sport in the world."

    Johnson says friends and teammates from his UK days have been in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

    One teammate, former U.S. Olympic-team contender Ricky Dellagatta, surprised him by flying in to show support at the Games.

    Collectively, the Games are an experience Johnson will always cherish.

    "It’s just a blessing. God blesses you in your life in a lot of different things," he said. "Never in my imagination, when I first started wrestling in North Carolina, could I have imagined that I would become an Olympic coach and be experiencing this. ... I’m extremely blessed.

    "I wish our guys would have gotten some medals. We’re still hopeful for tomorrow."