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Friday, 13 August 2021

Interview with athletics legend Michael Johnson ahead of his new Paralympics series, Michael Johnson Meets

Why did you want to make this series?

I've always been interested in Paralympic athletes. With my company, Michael Johnson Performance, we work with athletes in all different sports and have worked with a lot of Paralympic athletes. It's always been very intriguing for me and my team of coaches as the Paralympians present a different and unique type of challenge as opposed to an Olympic athlete without a disability. For example, symmetry is extremely important for most athletes; the left side of your body should be doing the exact same thing as the right side and when both of those limbs are not the same, that's an incredible challenge to overcome. It's always been really intriguing to me to not only watch our staff but to watch these athletes get very creative in terms of how they overcome these sorts of unique challenges that athletes with disabilities present.

How did it feel playing the role of in depth interviewer?

I think for me it's somewhat natural given that I've been twenty plus years removed from my own athletic career and have spent the last twenty years on this side so basically it's more and more natural for me.  Because I've been on the other side, I try to understand the athlete's perspective better and try to provide a different type of interview for them. I know when I was an athlete, I always appreciated someone who wasn't asking the same questions over and over again. My job interviewing an athlete is to present them to the audience of course but I think the audience has a better perspective of the athlete when the subject is actually interested in answering the question and then interested in the dialogue. I try and make it interesting for whoever it is that I'm interviewing.  

The Paralympics have always showcased unbelievable athletes but to the casual bystander they've only seemed to gain the same attention and respect as the Olympics in the last 10/20 years. What do you think changed things?

I think 2012 was a real turnaround point for the perception of Paralympic sport. The London 2012 Paralympics highlighted the greatness of these athletes and the compelling competition that exists. I think that was carried through in 2016 and around the world it's continued to gather steam We're seeing Paralympic governing bodies having access to more resources and more support being poured into the development of Paralympic athletes and promotion of Paralympic sport.

What are the differences between the broadcasting and profile of The Olympics and Paralympics in the US and UK?

There was a huge difference prior to 2012 for sure. When London hosted the Paralympics – and I've heard this from the Paralympians – the athletes didn't expect there would be so much interest in the games. People wanted so badly to go see some sport and when they didn't get tickets to the Olympics, they went to the Paralympics thinking they would just see some sport and take part in this historic event coming to London but then actually found they were watching some amazing sport, regardless of whether it was the Olympics or Paralympics. I think since then and 2016 the momentum picked up, that was sustained and even the US broadcaster started picking up on it as well and started to provide more coverage of Paralympic sport. The gap is continuing to close – it's not there yet but the attitudes of Paralympic sport have changed from to be honest, a bit 'let's go and support these athletes because they have disabilities and it's the right thing to do' to having the same sort of respect for Paralympic athletes and their ability, talent and hard work that they have for Olympic athletes.

Do have a standout moment from watching previous Paralympic Games?

Not a standout moment as such. Obviously being a sprinter, watching the sprint has always been interesting for me, particularly the visually impaired athletes – that's just amazing to me. I know how difficult balance and perception is and having once had the opportunity to blindfold myself and run with a guide it was just incredibly difficult. As I've got more into it and worked with different athletes, wheelchair racer and multiple world record holder Tatyana McFadden as an example, I continued to watch more and more as it's just incredibly compelling. Also, every one of these Paralympians has an incredible story which is so different from Olympic athletes where not everyone has an amazing background story. I don't have an amazing story – my career you could argue was amazing, but I don't have the story as to how I got there, what I had to overcome – I was afforded every opportunity to do what I did. Every Paralympic athlete has an amazing story.  

You meet the amazing Ellie Simmonds in the first episode who shot to fame in Beijing when she was just 13. How does someone of that age cope with the spotlight?

What really stood out to me when I was talking to Ellie was when she talked about her decision to just really take some time out. For an athlete that starts that early in their career, that's so important because you miss a lot as a 13 year old athlete who is already training and competing at that level. You miss a lot of your maturity, your natural development as a human being and a lot of fun that your peers are having. That was incredibly insightful for her to recognise she needed to take that break, go and be normal for a while away from the lifestyle of sport you're so dedicated to.

Ellie gets understandably emotional when talking about the yearlong delay to this year's Paralympics and how difficult it was to initially cope with that mentally. How do you think you would have coped in the same situation?

I think for me I would have tried to remind myself of the fact that everybody around the world – all my competitors – are having to deal with the same sort of delay as I am and that would have put me at ease. I always felt comfortable as long as I knew the competition was going to be fair and I wouldn't be at any disadvantage. That's what competition is all about. My job was to be ready and that's how I would have viewed it. The news at the very beginning that you've been training so long and you're going to be delayed for a year would be devastating. I'm sure I would have been disappointed, but you just get on with it.

You and Kadeena Cox were both the unexpected victims of strokes and you talk very candidly about your experiences. She went from able bodied athlete to double Paralympic champion and you've attributed your recovery to your 'Olympic mindset.' Nearly three years on from your stroke, how are you feeling now?

I was very fortunate to make a full recovery. It was unexpected and something I absolutely attribute to my life as an athlete – knowing my body really well, understanding and knowing how to tackle those difficult challenges that you do as an athlete. That's how I was able to approach the rehab and physically now I'm 100%. With Kadeena, she was diagnosed with MS after suffering a stroke, so you never know what's around the corner especially when I know my case wasn't attributable to anything that I was or wasn't doing. I have no family history; it truly came from nowhere which means that could happen again. So you always know that, you get on with it and you learn how to live with it and do the things you can to minimise the risk going forward.

It's safe to say you are very loved in the UK as both an athlete and a pundit. How do you feel about the UK? And do you get the same reception back home?

It's been twenty years since I started working with the BBC covering events and it feels natural now. I'm appreciative of the fans here that I have, and I don't take that for granted – I take my role very seriously. My job is to provide insight to fans and try to help them have a more enjoyable experience when they're watching sport. My new series helps me to better understand what these athletes have been through and their mindset, but I enjoy it, I enjoy helping people understand sport at a deeper level. I love sport, I'm curious about athletes and think most viewers are as well so if I can get in, in a way that others can't, and help viewers have a better experience – that's a natural fit for me.

In terms of being starstruck, Ellie says meeting both Taylor Swift and Michael Phelps had the biggest impact on her – and both left her speechless! Has anyone had the same impression on you?

I was a little disappointed that Ellie didn't say me! For me, it was Bill Russell who was a famous basketball player, one of the greatest ever. I've never been a huge basketball fan, but I was a huge fan of Bill's because he was just an amazing athlete who won several NBA championships as a player, more as a player and coach at the same time and even more as a coach. He's just an amazing individual and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. It just so happened that I was at an event, staying at the hotel where the event was being hosted, got in the elevator, there was only one other person in it, and it was Bill Russell. He's about 7ft tall and I'm 6'1 so he's way taller than me and very imposing – a very stately older gentleman. I wanted to say something, and I couldn't say anything, I was starstruck. Just before he got off – I didn't know if he knew who I was – he looked at me and says in this very deep voice that he has, 'I really appreciate your work young man' and walked out the elevator. That was probably about 15 years ago, and I've been kicking myself ever since that I never said anything to him.

You are famously one of the coaches on the NHS-backed Couch to 5K app which has seen unprecedented take-up since the start of the pandemic. How important is it for you to encourage people of all ages and abilities to get moving and give running a go?  

It's really important. Going back to my own experience of having had a stroke, one of the reasons I was able to make a full recovery so quickly was because of having maintained a high level of physical fitness after my career. It didn't prevent me from having a stroke, but it certainly helped me to return to my normal lifestyle much quicker. If I can help motivate people which is one of the biggest problems with fitness in terms of motivation as it's not easy, then that's great. People think that when you've been an athlete, it's easy to stay physically fit but it's not. As an athlete I was getting paid more money than anyone could possibly imagine doing what I loved, training every day, getting gold medals and every time I crossed the finish line there were fans. Now when I go for a run, there's no fans, I'm not getting paid, there are no medals, so the motivation has to be something else. When I first retired it was difficult – your attitude is why am I doing this and what am I doing it for? I'm not doing it for the sport, the accolades, or the wins so I had to find another motivation. It's difficult for people and I get that.

Would you like to make more episodes? Who would be on your wish list?

Yes. I love getting into the mind of an athlete and helping people understand them. Who'd be on my list? I'm not sure, I haven't really thought about that, but I love talking to athletes about their careers, how they feel about their sport, what their goals are, how they tackle different challenges and the pressures of sport. Especially an athlete who has a very similar approach to mine like Will Bayley but sometimes you find an athlete with a completely different approach and that's always interesting as well.  

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