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Johnny Gray — June, 2024
Johnny Gray has represented the United States at four Olympic Games at 800 meters, in 1984 in Los Angeles, in 1988 in Seoul, Korea, in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, and in 1996 in Atlanta. He earned the Olympic Bronze Medal in 1992. Johhny was a finalist in his three other Olympic finishes, finishing 7th, 5th and 7th. He won eight U.S. Championships and broke U.S. records eleven times. His 800-meter USA Records of 1:42.6 outdoors and 1:45.00 indoors both stood for decades until being broken in 2019. Johnny broke the World Record for 600 meters multiple times and his 1:12.81 World Record from 1986 still stands today after 38 years. Track and Field News ranked him number one in the U.S. eight times and top ten in the world eleven times. Johnny won the Pan Am Games 800 meters in 1987 and 1999. His other major 800-meter victories include five times at Oslo’s Bislett Games, and multiple times in Zurich, Stockholm, Berlin, Koblenz, and Rieti. Johnny is the all-time leader for the longest span of competition in Olympic Trials in any men’s track event with six Olympic Trials over 20 years from 1980 to 2000. J-Gray was coached his entire running career as a prep, collegian and pro by Merle McGee. After his competitive years, Johnny coached on the prep level and collegiately, most notably at UCLA and UCF. He also coached many elite professionals, including Olympians Khadevis Robinson and Duane Solomon. Johnny was inducted into the United States National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2008 and also earned inductions into the Santa Monica College HOF, Millrose Games HOF, Mt. SAC Relays HOF, and was presented the key to the city for Santa Monica, Inglewood, Walnut, Agoura Hills and New York. His personal best times include: 600m - 1:12.81; 800m - 1:42.60; 1,000m – 2:17.27 and 4x800m relay – 7:06.5. Johnny resides in Los Angeles, California and was very gracious to spend over two hours on the telephone for this interview in early June 2024.
GCR: THE BIG PICTURE Let’s start with your achievement of competing in four Olympic Games, which you did in 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996, making the final each time and earning a Bronze Medal in 1992. What did it mean at the time to you the first time you became an Olympian and put on the USA jersey at the Olympics and what does this accomplishment mean to you now that your competitive days have ended to know that you are forever a four-time U.S. Olympian and an Olympic Medalist?
JG It means a lot. I had first tried out for the 1980 Olympic team, which the USA boycotted because Russia wouldn’t withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. I was turning twenty years old then. When I made the 1984 team, it was a great experience because the Games were held here at home in Los Angeles. I was still finding out what my true talents and capabilities were. That was one of my best years of running. I went overseas and broke the American Record several times after tying Earl Jones with an American Record at the Olympic Trials and making my first team. I was learning how to run the 800-meter race. I was changing my race strategy every round in the 1984 Games. In the 1988 Games, I was getting better, but I was still making mistakes here and there. In 1992, I realized I was going to go out and run the final the way I knew how to do it. But then, the night before the finals, I was sick. I was almost ready to not run the finals. My coach, Merle McGee, said to me that because I had worked so hard to make the finals, that I should toe the line and do the best I could. So, I toed the line and ran well until the last one hundred and fifty meters when Jose Luis Barbosa accidentally hit my foot and tripped me up with one fifty to go. I was feeling great at that point but, when I got knocked off balance, lactic acid hit me, and I struggled from one hundred and twenty meters all the way to the finish line. But I thank God that I got my first Olympic medal. The two Kenyan runners that battled with me to the end were great runners. It was a tight race and we battled to the line. That was a great victory. I’ve always told my athletes that winners don’t always come in first place. What I mean by that is that sometimes you can win a race and not feel like you have won and vice versa. So, my Olympic experiences were some of my greatest experiences. They allowed me to be in the Olympic Village and to meet athletes from all over the world. That was the best experience I’ve ever had. When I was young, I didn’t leave the country or even the state, for that matter, or hardly even the city. So, to travel the world and meet all these different people allowed me to see people for who and what they are rather than what the television tried to make us believe they were.
GCR: When outside observers evaluate athletic careers, they often look at championships and records. In addition to being a four-time Olympian and Olympic Bronze Medalist, eight times you have won U.S. Championships, eleven times you broke U.S. records, you have held the World Record at 600 meters for thirty-eight years and Track and Field News ranked you number one in the U.S. eight times and top ten in the world eleven times. When you look at these achievements over a lengthy period of time, how do you evaluate your own running career?
JG At the time when I accomplished these, it didn’t mean much. I did it and was always looking at what other people accomplished. I was running and sort of thinking that, if I could accomplish this, then anybody could. The 600-meter record meant something to me when I first broke it because it belonged to Lee Evans at the time. I always looked up to him and Tommie Smith and John Carlos. I looked up to that era of runners from the 1960s. Tommie Smith was my coach at Santa Monica College when I went there. He didn’t actually coach me, but he hired my coach, Merle McGee, for whom I ran. It meant very much to me to break that 600-meter record because I had so much admiration for Lee Evans and his accomplishments. Then I broke it several more times, but it wasn’t here nor there because it was just Johnny Gray’s record.
GCR: You mentioned racing at the 1980 Olympic Trials when you were only twenty years old. We know you made the next four Olympic teams and you also competed at the 2000 Olympic Trials. The fact that you competed in those six Olympic Trials over a period of twenty years is the longest span of competition in Olympic Trials in any men’s track event. We aren’t including race walking and field events but, what does this say that over nearly 130 years of modern Olympic competition that the man who has been at the USA Olympic Trials competing on the track for the longest span of time is you?
JG You just brought something to my attention that I didn’t think about. It’s amazing to hear this now while I have grandchildren who are running. To accomplish a feat such as that – wow! I can put that on my resume. I didn’t even know that. I spent those years running and taking it day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year. If I was healthy enough to run the next year, then I planned to be out there. That was my approach.
GCR: As a competitor, we often think that we could have done something different such as going out faster or slower in a race or making a certain move. How tough is it to earn medals on the World stage and, if you could have ‘do-overs,’ is there anything you could do differently that may have resulted in better outcomes? Or each day did you do your best based on the available information you had and that’s just how it is?
JG You covered it. On each day, I did my best and that was what I could do. As years go on, times change. When I was running, I would have to run four rounds of the 800 meters just to make the team. I found myself running 1:42 one year just to make the U.S. team. And that was after four rounds. It was exhausting. Back in those days, the Olympics would follow about a month later. So, I would have to peak for the Olympic Trials and wear myself out because we had some steep competition in the U.S. Then I had to come back and meet my competitors like Joachim Cruz, Jose Luis Barbosa, the Kenyans, guys from the Netherlands and the Englishmen. Most of them didn’t have to go through the many rounds as we had to in the U.S. In England they did have tough rounds, but Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott, who were my competition, knew they were the best in England and didn’t exhaust themselves in their Olympic Trials. I had to run every round because in America it’s all about money and television. They had to sell products and it was like a mini-Olympics. They worked us to death to have a show for television. Then we had to come back for the Olympics, and I found myself struggling to peak twice. I made it work, but it wasn’t easy. I was breaking down by the time the Olympics came. That’s why I got sick in 1992. My body broke down because I ran so hard at the Trials. So, I had problems and setbacks.
GCR: The 800 meters is a beautiful event because it is always an honest race and is the intersection of 400/800 meter runners whose forte is more speed-oriented and 800/1,500-meter runners whose strength is more endurance-oriented. How was it strategically and tactically with such diverse opponents, maybe four from each camp, knowing that all of you were aiming to use your relative strengths and you had to evaluate where they were at multiple points of the race to still have a kick to the finish to place as highly as possible?
JG You analyzed that well and I couldn’t have done it any better. That is how I set my strategy. I wasn’t as fast as some of the guys. I could run a forty-four low relay split, but, in the open four hundred meters it took me a while to get started. I didn’t run enough open four hundreds. I set a fast pace in the 800 meters, and my thoughts were that my opponents might not be able to make it up. That’s how I approached the race. As far as the 1,500 meters, I didn’t like the pain. So, I was in the middle. I was sort of fast and sort of strong. What I did was go out the way that I did to break the good four-hundred-meter runners. I also went out fast enough to, hopefully, break the 1,500-meter runners who were going to sit back and give me too much room.
GCR: I went back and watched about ten of your races on YouTube to get a good feel for them and you were out front very often. But, when you set the American Record of 1:42.60 at Koblenz, you weren’t out fast as you hung in the back before starting to make a move at 300 meters because the field spread out. You caught Joachim Cruz right at 500 meters and ran very even splits as your first lap was 51.3-something and second lap was 51.2-something. Did that end up being the perfect race?
JG There is a story behind that. I was trying to get out of that race because I had just run at the Weltklasse meet in Zurich. After winning in 1:43 in Zurich, I caught the train to Koblenz. I got there the night before the race. Joachim Cruz was aiming for Sebastian Coe’s World Record of 1:41.73. I told my coach that I was tired because I had just got there, and my competitors had been there for four days. ‘Can I pull out of the race?’ He said it was too late and I couldn’t. I got in the race not really wanting to run. That’s why I sat back. But I ended up running my best time ever. That’s why I tell my athletes that sometimes you may not feel your best, but still go out there and run your best. What helped me in that race was that there were twenty guys in the race and, because the field was spread out so much, I told myself, ‘I can get this one guy.’ And so, I went after him. Then there was another guy and I thought I could get him too and I went after him. The next thing you know, I was starting to get back in the race and was thinking, ‘You know, I can win this race!’ That is how I ran my best race.
GCR: We mentioned your 600 meters World Record of 1:12.81 which has stood since 1986. It has withstood many challenges, including from David Rudisha, the World Record Holder at 800 meters. Do you think that if 600 meters had been an Olympic event that it could have been your best distance?
JG Reality tells us that (laughing). What is ironic about that is every time I ran the 600 meters, I broke the World Record. I only ran it four or five times and every time I ran a World Record. When I ran it, there were very few people in the stands except for the first time. That one was either in Fresno or San Jose. One time we were in Santa Monica, it was cold, I went for it, and I broke it. All the times except that one, there was a practice atmosphere. I asked myself later down the line, when I saw other people trying to break my record, how it could have been if I was on a stage like Monaco with thousands of fans in the stands and the best track. If I had run in an environment like that, I honestly believe I could have broken 1:12 easily.
GCR: In addition to the twenty years from your first to last Olympic Trials competition, at age 40, you ran the 800 meters in 1:48.81 at the 2001 USA Indoor Track and Field Championships, which is the World Masters Athletics record indoors. How enjoyable was it to be still racing fast in your event as a Masters athlete, much like Eamonn Coghlan and Bernard Lagat we’re doing in the mile?
JG It was in Atlanta. When I ran that race, I wasn’t thinking that I was an old man. I was thinking that I was still a competitor. I didn’t run very well that day – at least I didn’t think so. Someone told me after the race, ‘Hey, you broke the masters World Record.’ I didn’t care. I was mad at him and said, ‘I don’t care about that record. I’m trying to win this race.’ Later on, I could look at that race and appreciate it.
GCR: OLYMPIC TRIALS AND OLYMPICS At the 1984 Olympic Trials, Earl Jones and you both finished in an American Record of 1:43.74 as he outleaned you by inches for the win. What was very unusual was that John Marshall and James Robinson were less than two meters back at the same time of 1:43.92 as Marshall nipped Robinson for the final Olympic team spot. What was that race finish like as Earl and you were both going to make the team, but both fought for the win?
JG That year I was trying to figure out how I wanted to approach the 800 meters. Did I want to continue to lead? I heard James Robinson, who was my friend, and he made me think that I was going out too hard. For those finals, I decided that I would listen to J.R. and not go out so hard. I started thinking this might be the race where I could do something different. If you keep doing the same thing and expect a different result, but you don’t get it, that’s insanity. If I tried something different, maybe I would get that different result I was looking for. So, I sat back with J.R. Then I caught myself and knew I couldn’t sit back too long with him because he was going to outkick me. I knew I had to move a little before him. So, on the back stretch I started making my move. Just like when I set the American Record in Koblenz, I had an amazing finish. That is how I should have been running my races all along. I felt so great at the end. I found myself reeling everyone in. When Earl Jones and I leaned, we looked up. My best time at that point was 1:45.07. When I saw 1:43.74 on the scoreboard, I thought ‘The clock must have broken.’ I knew I didn’t run that fast. But, lo and behold, we ran 1:43.74. That brought a lot of faith and belief in myself. I went overseas and continued to do it. That was the most amazing feeling of my whole career.
GCR: In the 1984 Olympics final, you were quite a way behind with 300 meters to go in eighth place and started moving up on the back stretch to fifth place on Sebastian Coe’s shoulder with 250 meters remaining. Suddenly, you were bumped off the pace and never got back into the race. Can you describe how you were feeling at that point and what happened?
JG That was when someone cut over in front of me because, at that point, runners were joshing for position. I’m not a quick mover. It takes me some time because I’m so tall and those shorter runners can get the jump on me. They think they have the space to make a move and that I’m behind them. But I’m in front of them because I have that long stride. When they cut, I have to change my cadence. Then it allows the lactic acid to start taking control. I was done and that was another learning experience.
GCR: At the 1988 Olympic Trials, you won your heat, quarterfinal and semifinal. As you mentioned, there are so many great competitors that, when you won the final in 1:43.96 over Mark Everett in 1:44.46 and Tracy Baskin in 1:44.91, great runners such as George Kersh, Ocky Clark, John Marshall and James Robinson were left in their wake and didn’t make the team. What was it like to compete with six studs who could all make the team and, if you don’t have a good day, could thwart your efforts to make the Olympic team?
JG That is exactly how it is and, when there is that much depth, it makes the rounds tough. There isn’t a round that is easy. Every round takes work to advance. It takes its toll.
GCR: The 1988 Olympic final in Seoul, Korea was loaded and, as it played out, the top four were Paul Ereng at 1:43.45, Joachim Cruz at 1:43.90, Said Aouita at 1:44.06 and Peter Elliott at 1:44.12 ahead of your strong 1:44.80 for fifth place. What was it like when you were a bit behind the lead pack with 200 meters to go and they weren’t fading, and what was the effect of being in a time zone that was half of the day away?
JG If you interview each athlete and what they are experiencing in their lives before that final, everyone has a different story. My story in Seoul was that we went shopping. It was Dennis Mitchell, his mother and sister, my wife at the time, and me. In Korea, the cabs are drivers’ livelihoods. The way people choose to ride in someone’s cab is based on how it looks so they take care of them. We were standing on the sidewalk with our bags sitting there waiting for a cab. There aren’t curbs there. This cab came up, hit the bags, almost hit us and we jumped out of the way. My reaction was to kind of kick out so I wouldn’t be hit by the cab. When I kicked out, I hit his car. He got out with a crowbar. This was written up and in the newspapers. A group started surrounding us. Dennis Mitchell and I had to stand back-to-back to prevent people from attacking us. The military police came in and saved us but, because I had kicked his car, that was a big crime. They held me in a holding tank all night until about two or three o’clock in the morning. This was the night before the 800-meter finals. I didn’t say much about this, but I had to figure out how to get through it. I went to the finals and that is what I had to deal with.
GCR: Jumping forward to the 1992 Olympic Trials again you won your heat, quarterfinal and semifinal. There was another strong group of competitors, but you dominated the final in 1:42.80 as the guys who were with you early – Stanley Redwine, George Kersh and Ocky Clark – faded as Mark Everett in 1:43.67 and Jose Parilla in 1:43.97 moved up to make the team. Since your performance was so dominant, were you just super ready to race that year?
JG I had some good years where I felt great. I only wish I could have had that feeling in the Olympic Games. With the competition we face in the Olympic finals, I never felt great. When I feel great, I can run some fast times. When I’m not feeling great, you see it. The only time I felt great was in 1992, but I got sick.
GCR: Speaking of the 1992 Olympics, let’s segue into that. It’s interesting you mentioning you were sick because I had that happen my senior year in high school the night before the Region cross country meet to get to the Florida State Championships. I didn’t tell anyone because I had to place in the top five to qualify and didn’t want them to have any advantage in their minds. Did anyone know you were sick because everything I read was about you saying you were going to take your competitors to the ‘Johnny Gray Twilight Zone’ by taking it out fast and making them suffer? And what was it like as you led the whole way until Nixon Kiprotich and William Tanui passed you in the final 60 meters as Tanui won in 1:43.66, ahead of Kiprotich at 1:43.70 and you a tick behind at 1:43.97? Since you were sick, was that Bronze Medal like your Gold?
JG You are right. It wasn’t just the medal that I looked at as my goal. The medal was important because it had eluded me though my first two Olympic Games. To try to meet that at my age was difficult because the older you get, the harder it gets. I was old before I got an Olympic medal, but I got it. I was so sick the night before. I had a high temperature of something like 106. A doctor came in and told my coach, ‘The temperature has to come down. He shouldn’t run tomorrow.’ That night I was trying to figure out how I was going to let everyone know I wasn’t going to be at the race. But we didn’t get to that point. The next day when my coach asked me how I felt, I told him we were going to toe the line and, if I didn’t feel well, I would drop out. That was my initial approach to the race. If you look at me on the line before the race, you can tell I look sick. But, when I took off, I thought, ‘Man, I feel good. I’m going to keep doing this until the fever tells me to stop.’ I got all the way to the 650-meter mark and was feeling great until I got clipped. If you watch that race on tape, you will see I’m about to fall and my cadence changes when Jose Luis-Barbosa hits my foot. Then lactic acid hit me. It was more so me panicking as I thought, ‘Oh no, is this going to happen again?’ I had been feeling so good and there was always something that happened. But I told myself that I wasn’t going to quit no matter what. I kept fighting and kept fighting and kept fighting. I thought, ‘Please let me get this Gold!’ I was looking at Kiprotich and was fighting with him for the win and Tanui came by on my right side and ran past both of us. I ended up with the Bronze Medal and was very pleased with it. Like you said, that Bronze Medal felt like Gold. It was the moment that felt like the Gold more than anything because it was a true Olympic race where I ran into different adversities. I didn’t let them stop me. I continued fighting and that is what the Olympics are about. When you face adversity, who is going to continue to fight? That is what makes a race exciting – when you see every athlete giving their all. When you can do that, you know that you’ve done the best you can do. You can’t ask for anything better and you leave the race satisfied.
GCR: In 1992, the media was talking about how you were the oldest man in the field and then at the 1996 Olympic Trials you were back and still running and racing strong. Now you were the older, oldest man in the field, and you still won your heat, quarterfinal, semifinals, and the finals. The men you had competed against over the past fifteen years were almost all retired and you had a new group of guys. How was that final where you ran a 1:44 flat to best Brndon Rock at 1:44.64, Jose Parilla at 1:44.86 and Rich Kenah at 1:45.20?
JG Yes, I was an old man. Also, everybody knew how I was going to race, so that was a disadvantage. I was older and I thought that all of these youngsters had speed and youth and were going to use me as a rabbit. So, I had to go for it and run my race and may the best man win.
GCR: The 1996 Olympics were back on home soil in Atlanta and there is a difference since the crowd is excited and pulling for you and all Americans. That was an exciting race with the top four athletes breaking 1:43. The medalists were Vebjorn Rodal at 1:42.58, Hezekiel Sepeng at 1:42.74 and Fred Onyancha at 1:42.79, while Norberto Tellez ran 1:42.85 and went home without a medal. Were you proud of how you raced at age thirty-six as you led the first lap in 49.55 to set up a fast race, still led at 600 meters as the pack was gaining on you and then a big group passed you during the last 100 meters as you ran a respectable 1:44.21 for seventh place?
JG I was the Olympic rabbit. But I didn’t know my time after the race. I was upset and felt like a failure and never got my time that day. I didn’t know how fast I ran until ten years later. I never looked to see my time because, when I run like that toward the end of the race, I want to get that feeling out of my system. I don’t want to carry that with me. What happened in that race is that I false started slightly and slowed down because I knew they were going to fire the gun again to recall us. At that time, you were allowed one false start and, if you jumped again, you would be disqualified. So, I false started and slowed up thinking they were going to shoot the gun again and they never did. I had to take off again. I knew I couldn’t run from the back at age thirty-six. I had to run my race. I took off way too fast. I was dead at four hundred meters. Here we go again, and I have to hold on. We got to five hundred meters, and I worked to hold on. We got to six hundred meters, and I thought, ‘I’m still out front. Got to hold on.’ We got to the 650-meter point. I’m still out front. ‘Got to hold on!’ I got to seven hundred meters and that’s when, shoom, shoom, everybody goes by. Once again, I had to experience this.
GCR: Before we move on to some other areas, let’s look at the Olympic experience. What are outstanding memories from your four Olympic Games the cities, the people, or other highlights when you were in Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, and Atlanta?
JG In 1984 it was cool because the Olympic Village was at USC. I slept in my home because I lived in Los Angeles and then I would get up and head to the Olympic Village. I would hang out. We received all sorts of gifts since we were Olympians, like a bowling ball with our name on it. It was a great experience to see athletes from all the different countries. When we see the gymnasts on television, they look like these grown, big women. When I saw them in person, they were little. Oh my God – they were so small. It was amazing to see how television showed the Olympics and the reality of these athletes in daily life and how they are regular human beings. But when we see these athletes on television, they are incredible. They are unbelievable human beings.
GCR: Did you or hang out with any athletes from the U.S or foreign nations where you enjoyed a nice friendship?
JG I met Henry Tillman, Michael Jordan, and Evander Holyfield. I spent time together with Cheryl Cooper, the WNBA player. I didn’t do a lot of hanging out because my event was one of the first events and I had to get ready near the start of the Games. Now the 800 meters is toward the end. Since my event was early, I couldn’t get out and enjoy because I was starting off the Games with a bang.
GCR: Did you stay around for any of the Closing Ceremonies, which seem on television to be a fun atmosphere as the competition is over and everybody is happy and letting off steam?
JG We put on the uniforms they gave us, and the Closing Ceremonies were always fun. We were out there with everyone, standing there, and thinking about what we had accomplished. I thanked God that I was able to be there and experience that moment. The Olympics are one of the greatest experiences in sports. That is why professional athletes are there. The NBA players receive more joy from the Olympics than from their season.
GCR: OTHER PROFESSIIONAL COMPETITIONS After the 1984 Olympic Trials when Earl Jones nipped you by an inch or two at the line, you won your first USA Outdoor Championships 800 meters in 1985 in 1:44.01 with John Marshall, Earl Jones and David Mack all sub-1:45. How exciting was it to beat such a strong and highly competitive field for the win and the USA Championships Gold Medal?
JG I ran against those U.S. competitors so much that it was almost routine. The only thing that messes up the routine is knowing I would have to deal with lactic acid building up. It’s not so much the competitors you are afraid of as what you have to go through to try to win. Can I endure this? Lactic acid makes a coward out of all of us. When I talked to my competitors – David Mack, Earl Jones, Mark Everett, and James Robinson – we were basically telling each other what we planned to do. I would say, ‘I’m going to go out.’ I’d hear, ‘Okay, J-Gray, I’ll be right with you.’ Mark Everett would tell me that all the time. ‘J-Gray, I’m going with you.’ But, when I went out, he never went with me.
GCR: When you were Gold Medalist at the 1986, 1987 and 1989 USA Championships, Stanley Redwine, who has been under the radar since he was at his best in non-Olympic years, was Silver Medalist each time. Does anything stand out in particular from these races and how tough of an adversary was Stanley Redwine?
JG Stanley was a great runner. As a coach, when I looked at Stanley, he had lean legs, but his upper body was muscular. There were times when I was at 750 meters fighting to get to the finish line and Stanley was right next to me. But, when I hit the finish line in 1:42 or 1:43, I would ask Stanley what he ran. He might say, ‘I ran a 1:45.’ I contribute that to too many muscles in his upper body. He was too muscular. I hated being a skinny runner and I wanted to lift weights. My coach wouldn’t let me because, if I developed muscles, all they were going to do was tie up during the race. When I looked at Stanley, I saw those muscles and knew I would outkick him because he would tie up.
GCR: At both the 1990 and 1991 USA Championships, the top four in order were Mark Everett, George Kersh, you, and Ocky Clark, who now coaches at Winter Springs High School in the Greater Orlando area. What were key points that led to Everett and Kersh topping you by a few tenths of a second each time while you topped Clark for the Bronze medals?
JG I was getting old and getting tired of running. I had to do this again and again. I ran well for so many years but, the longer I ran, the more difficult it became. I was tired of running and didn’t want to as much anymore. But I had to so I could take care of my family. There wasn’t a job for me that could match the pay I was making in track and field and the endorsement contracts on top of that. So, I hung in there for those reasons more than loving it because I didn’t love it. If you think about it, our sport is every other sport’s punishment. They make you run if you make a mistake. If you miss a play, take a lap. So, we are being punished every day. Even on an easy day, I had to run six miles.
GCR: You may have been getting older and more tired, so what changed at the 1992 USA Championships as you dropped a 1:42.80 to top Mark Everett at 1:43.67 and Jose Parilla at 1:43.97 on an extremely fast day as George Kersh ran 1:44.00 and didn’t even make the podium? Did the Olympic year fire get you going?
JG It was the Olympic year and proper preparation. That is what I tell the kids I coach. The five Ps are proper preparation prevents poor performances. In one of those years where I took third place at the U.S. Championships, I had edema from the stress of all the worry. I had a bleeding ulcer. I was losing blood in my stool. I was fatigued when I jogged a lap. I didn’t do a lot of training that year. When the Trials approached in 1992, I was able to train better. I always say that behind every glory is a story. Everyone has a story. I’m sure I’m not the only one who goes through adversity at times.
GCR: You also won some very prestigious meets, the first being five times at the Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway. What was it that led to you being victorious so many times at this historic venue?
JG Number one is the way that they treated me. Svein Arne Hansen was the meet promoter. He was a friend of mine and treated me so well. Arne would sometimes get into heated conversations with Joe Douglass and Joe would say, ‘I’m pulling out. I’m pulling the Santa Monica Track Club out.’ But I told Joe he could take the sprinters to a meet focused on sprints, but I was staying. I always felt great there and I had a couple Norwegian friends who trained with me – Bo Briggen and Atle Douglas – they moved out to the States for a certain period of time and trained with me. We became friends so, whenever I was in Norway, I would train with them, and we would try to push them to break their country’s record. Each one of them broke it. Bo Briggen ran the fastest Bislett Games 800 meters for a Norwegian. Atle Douglass ran 1:45 low and 1:44 high to break the Norwegian 800-meter record. Then the youngster, Vebjorn Rodal, ran 1:42 to win the 1996 Olympics.
GCR: Other European cities where you won multiple times include Zurich, Stockholm, Berlin, Koblenz, and Rieti. With dozens of European victories, are certain wins particularly memorable due to factors including competition, tactics, weather, or the historic nature of the venue?
JG All the races in Zurich are memorable because the competition in Zurich is stronger than at the Olympics. A lot of times there are great athletes that don’t make their Olympic team because they weren’t healthy at that moment which prevented them from making their team. By the time we get to Zurich, they are healthy, and they are great runners. In Zurich, all the top runners who didn’t quite make it to the Olympics are waiting for you to prove they should have been an Olympian. So, in the 800 meters, they have an A, B and C heat. One year I was sick and wasn’t running fast, so they didn’t place me in the A heat, and they put me in the B heat. I won the B heat with a time of 1:43.0 something and Wilson Kipketer won the A heat with a time of 1:42.9 something. Overall, I ended up in second place because my time was the second fastest. In that meet, the competition is always hot. It’s like going to the Olympics when you race in Zurich. Stockholm is a beautiful venue. I like the country as we can go back in the woods when we warm up. The track has long straightaways. It is a beautiful stadium and has a beautiful atmosphere that I like. Rieti is always fast. It’s hot. It’s exciting. It’s electrifying. The races are always fast. When I stepped on Rieti’s track, I never ran slower than 1:42.9.
GCR: In 1988 you were on a roll prior to the Olympics as you won seven straight times including at Monaco and Zurich, before finishing second at the Van Damme Classic. Though you were nipped in the home stretch at the Olympics by the two Kenyans, when you look back, was 1988 the most consistent and high-quality year of your career?
JG That was the year I was very hot. I was ranked number two in the world that year. 1985 was also one of my great years. I had a good run in both of those years. I used to remember the details but, as time goes onward, it becomes blurrier.
GCR: Your World Championships record wasn’t stellar with a best of sixth place in 1991 in Tokyo in 1:45.67. In that race, it seemed like you ran well in terms of pace and tactics and were placed perfectly out front on the backstretch. What led to you not being able to sustain the pace and hold the lead as things heated up on the final turn?
JG Sometimes when I go overseas, my body doesn’t feel great. I don’t get acclimated enough. I don’t get used to the time change. Someone will say I should stay up and try to get used to the new time zone. Then they wonder, ‘Where’s Johnny?’ And I’m in the room sleeping. It is hard to get acclimated to the time zone in Japan. You are who you are on that given day. I can’t make any excuses because we call track and field ‘the sport of a thousand excuses.’ If you don’t run well there is a reason behind it. But that makes no difference because the best man still is going to win. The winner will be the best man who got the proper rest, the man that ate properly and who trained the hardest. The man who is ready to run on that given day will win. That is why, when I got on the line to race, I would pray to God, may the best man win. I used to pray to let me win, but everybody is praying that. So, may the best man win means that, if we all run our best race, then we are all winners. That’s where the thought comes from that winners may not always be in first place. If we go back and speak some more about Oslo, I wanted to go for the World Record while Bo Briggen wanted to go for his country’s record. He knew how I was going to run, which was to make the pace fast so he could break his country’s record. I ended up running 1:44 and was disappointed. I won the race but was disappointed because I wanted to break 1:42.6. The crowd was going crazy because Bo took third place and broke his country’s record for that meet. So, we took a victory lap holding his hands up. If you didn’t watch the race, you would have sworn he won the race. That is when I realized that winners don’t always come in first place. Bo took third place, but he was the winner that day.
GCR: An international competition that Americans don’t follow as closely is the Pan American Games. You won the Pan Am Games 800 meters in 1987 at Indianapolis in 1:46.79 and in 1999 in Winnipeg, Canada in 1:45.38. Was it fun to represent the USA at the Pan Am Games and to bring home two Gold Medals?
JG Those races weren’t easy because there are strong countries there. Some of the runners at the 1987 Pan Am Games were my good competitors – William Wuycke from Venezuela and Jose Luis-Barbosa from Brazil. I thought, ‘I have to run hard!’ It was rough in 1987. That was a tough race. Oh, it was hard. Barbosa finished a few meters back, followed by Stanley Redwine and Wuycke. In 1999 in Winnipeg, I felt good, but I faced Norberto Tellez from Cuba. He had just run a 1:42. I was hoping to at least get a medal. When I won, it was the best feeling. I found out how it felt to win a race when I knew I was not at my best. I truly enjoyed that race. Tellez and I ran all the way to the tape, and we leaned to see who would win. And I got the victory by two hundredths of a second. That was a great experience and a great feeling to beat an athlete at the level of Tellez.
GCR: Another area you raced was indoor track racing, which is cool because the fans are so close. You won the Millrose Games 800 meters three times, quite spread out in 1986, 1992 and 1999. It was like every six or seven years, ‘Johnny’s back – here’s Johnny!’ How different was racing indoors and did you enjoy the small tracks and close spectators?
JG I loved racing indoor track. It was my favorite. I was a tall runner, and everyone said that it wasn’t conducive for a tall runner to run on a one hundred sixty-yard wood banked track. But I knew how to use that curve and slingshot off it. All I would do is run good speed in the curve, shorten my stride and power through the straight. That’s all I would do the whole race. Good speed in the curve, power the straight, good speed in the curve, power the straight. When I heard the bell, I would take it home. It was fun and I had a great time. I loved it.
GCR: How satisfying was it to win the Millrose Games the third time in 1999 at age 38 in 1:48.69 over James Nolan of Ireland two clicks behind in 1:48.71?
JG I was ahead and then he passed me. In my head I was thinking, ‘Ah, I’m getting kind of old.’ But then I thought, ‘Hold on, I think I can get him.’ I kept going after him. Right at the tape I was catching him, and I leaned. I ended up beating him and that was fun.
GCR: That is a great story, and did it surprise James Nolan and the fans since it wasn’t your usual racing style?
JG What made it neat was because, when people would pass me in races, they would think that I was done. They had never seen me get passed and come back to get the victory. Usually, if they passed me, it was because I was done. I happened to have another gear and I shocked him. It made it a fun race to watch.
GCR: HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE RACING Let’s take a look at when you started running as a teenager. You started much later than most top runners. What other sports did you play? Were you playing basketball, football, and baseball before you became a runner?
JG I was playing football and baseball primarily before I became a runner. My mother and father were divorced. My father lived in Portland, Oregon and my mother lived in Los Angeles. As soon as I graduated from eighth grade, she told my brothers and me that we should go live with our father for four years. Starting after the eighth grade, I moved out to Oregon and attended Grant High School. I wasn’t thinking about running track.
GCR: Since it wasn’t a sport you did as a youth, how did you get started running?
JG There was one teacher who would ride his bike to school and run. At the end of every school year, he would challenge the students to do a three-kilometer run. I had on my Wallabees and a T-shirt. Kids could pick and choose what races they wanted to run. I decided to get out there and race him, but only go two laps and then pull out. I went two laps, and I was in front by a long shot. When the two laps were finished, everybody was yelling, ‘Go one more! You’re still in front. Go one more!’ So, I ran one more lap. I got back to the start, and they were again yelling, ‘Go one more!’ Before you know it, the running became competitive. I ended up beating him in that 3k run. The next day at school, it was on the school announcements that Johnny Gray beat the teacher. Then the cross-country coach, Coach Cobb, rest in peace because he just passed away a couple months ago, asked me to come out for cross-country. I said that I would, but I had to go back to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving to visit my brothers.
GCR: How did you end up running for Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles rather than Grant High School in Portland?
JG My brothers had decided after one year in Portland to go back to Los Angeles. I stayed because I liked it in Portland. But when I went back to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving during my junior year, my mother told me that I wasn’t going back to Oregon, and I was going to stay with her and my brothers. So, I enrolled in Crenshaw High School for the last semester of eleventh grade. My brother was running track. I didn’t know anybody, so I would go to track practice with him, watch practice and walk home with him. I was in the stands one day when he was practicing, and I happened to be sitting next to Coach McGee. He saw me, looked at me, and said, ‘Young man, would you like to run track?’ I said, ‘I guess I can. I don’t know anybody and I’m not doing anything.’ To get me started meeting people, I went out for track, and he gave me a uniform.
GCR: What was your early racing like that junior year when you were a novice to organized track racing?
JG I ran the two-mile because that was closer to what I did when I raced that teacher. I would win, but the race was long. I didn’t like it. I would run times like 10:13 and 10:34. The early part of the track meets was exciting and then, when the two-mile was run, everybody would leave. I was out there, and nobody was cheering. I didn’t like that. Jeff West was younger than me and was running the 800 meters. He was tall like me and I started talking to him. I asked him what the 800 meters was. ‘It’s two laps.’ I decided to move from the two-mile to the 800 meters, but I wasn’t good. I ran 2:17 in my first race. My coach told me that, if I ran cross country, I would get stronger and learn how to run the race. I would go out fast then and lose twenty seconds in the last hundred yards because I was dead with lactic acid. But I did get down from 2:17 to 2:06 that year.
GCR: Did you train a lot over the summer and how did your senior year of cross country go since you did have at least one good teammate in Jeff West?
JG I ran over the summer since that is what Coach McGee said I needed to do. We trained at Sandila Park. I ran cross country, got stronger and learned how to run.
GCR: What did Coach McGee have you doing in terms of mileage, long runs and key workouts that helped you to improve so much and have an unbelievable drop in your 800-meter time your senior year on the track?
JG I started at 2:06 and got down to 1:51 for 800 meters. Believe it or not, for my entire career, Coach McGee was my only coach. He coached me from high school to World Class racing. That senior year in track, he was giving me an eight lap warm up. Then I would do twelve hundreds, which was the Igloi method. He would say, ‘One easy, one good swing, one easy, one good swing’ and so on. When you run ‘swing,’ you lift your knees higher, so you get a longer stride. The movement is kept natural, but you drive the knee higher with ‘swing.’ When he said ‘speed,’ I would shorten my stride and focus on quick turnover. So, he was developing my muscles according to the way I would run. That built up strength that I didn’t have. He also gave us mileage. He would drive alongside us in his vehicle, blow a whistle and we would run at a faster tempo. He would have us hold that tempo until he blew the whistle again. This continued as he would blow the whistle again and – boom – we had to hit the tempo again. We did strength workouts in the beginning and then speed/stamina workouts. For example, if your goal was fifty seconds in the quarter mile, you would run twenty-fives for 200 meters. He would have us run twenty-five seconds for 200 meters, jog fifty meters and run another 200 meters in twenty-five seconds. That would get us on the pace of running a fast 800 meters.
GCR: When your best time was 2:06 from your junior year, did you start dropping your times quickly? And how cool was it to break two minutes?
JG My first time under two minutes was when I ran on the four by 800-meter relay and I ran a 1:57 split. A lot of success is belief in self. So, when I ran that 1:57 split, I then started believing I could break two minutes. A lot of what helped me was training and racing with Jeff West. He was incredibly good. When I raced, I would follow Jeff. I recall on the back stretch one race that I was tying up. I was yelling, ‘Jeff, wait up! Wait up!’
GCR: At the Los Angeles City Championships, you beat your teammate, Jeff West, and David Mack, who won the California State Championship that year in 1:51.8 with Jeff West third in 1:52.0 and defended his title the next year in 1:50.2 with West second in 1:50.5. What was that race like? Who was leading, who made the moves, and what did you do to come out on top of these two great runners?
JG I was leading because, at that point, I had started believing in myself and decided to run my race. If I followed them, I wouldn’t be proactive, but reactive. When you are reactive, you are always giving your competition a head start. So, I decided to lead. I just felt good. I ran that race in 1:54. We were on that nice, dirt track that was dragged well and it felt like I was running on flour. It was a great track to run on at East Los Angeles College. When I beat them, it was a major accomplishment. I had the upmost respect and regards for David Mack and Jeff West because they were competitors. They were great, young competitors. I was older than them so I thought, ‘I can’t let these youngsters beat me.’
GCR: How did you race at the State meet where, as I mentioned, David Mack won the California State Championship in 1:51.8 with Jeff West third in 1:52.0?
JG The State meet came around and they were simply better. They had more background than me and knew how to run the race better than me. I think I finished in seventh place. I don’t even remember my time. I think it was a personal best at the time. It was one of those races like when I was in the Olympics years later with many good runners.
GCR: When and where did you run your high school best time of 1:51?
JG I ran that 1:51 at the AAU meet in Memphis.
GCR: You went to college at Santa Monica for two years in 1979 and 1980, followed by Arizona State for two years in 1981 and 1982, but your race results are impossible to find. Can you tell us how you decided to attend Santa Monica and some race highlights?
JG I was going to go to Oregon, but they only offered me a half scholarship. UCLA also offered a half scholarship. My mother, of course, didn’t have the money to pay the other half. What I know now that I didn’t know back then, is there were other funds and grants that may have been available. Coach Joe Douglass was getting the coaching job at Santa Monica. Coach McGee told me that, since I didn’t have that much running experience, it would behoove me to go to Santa Monica and, under Joe’s tutelage, get better. I wasn’t great. I was still trying to learn and to find myself. Coach McGee said this would be a good steppingstone if I went to Santa Monica and got stronger. Then, if I went to Division One schools, I would be strong enough to compete with them. Otherwise, he thought they would break me. I enrolled at Santa Monica City College and Joe Douglass ended up not getting the coaching job. I didn’t know what I would do. Then Tommie Smith, Gold Medalist from the 1968 Olympics got the job. When I found this out, I went to Coach Smith’s office, and he wanted me to stay. He said that he knew I enrolled because I thought Joe was going to be my coach. He said, ‘What can I do to get you to stay.’ I said, ‘Let me train with Coach McGee.’ He said I could. So, I stayed, and, after my school classes, I would catch the bus back to Crenshaw High School to train with Coach McGee. Eventually, Tommie Smith asked Merle if he would be the Santa Monica distance coach. Since Coach McGee lived in Santa Monica, he did. When Coach McGee finished teaching classes at Crenshaw, he would come home. Jeff West would come with him to train with me and so Coach McGee was my coach for my freshman year and sophomore year of college. I got better and my time was down to just over 1:47.
GCR: When you were at Santa Monica City College and ran in the 1:47s, do you recall specific meets or competitions with top runners that stand out?
JG I won the College State Championships. But, to me, there wasn’t any true competition. Ther were a few great runners at Long Beach City College that I remember from Banning High School. There was Sam Caesar and Laberge Crawford. One thing I remember is that we were racing Long Beach City College, and they were at our track. The meet came down to the four by four-hundred-meter relay as to which team would win the meet. They had a great team. I told my friends, keep me close because I felt dominant in junior college. I got the baton on the anchor leg. The anchor leg runner for Long Beach City was about sixty-five yards in front of me. He was around the curve about fifteen meters from the back stretch and I was just getting the baton. I didn’t think I could catch him, but I was going to do everything in my power to try to get him. I ended up catching him and passing him and we won the relay and the meet. I ran something like a 44.9.
GCR: Did your improvement at Santa Monica City College set you up to go to Arizona State? And what shortened your stay there?
JG Yes, I earned a full scholarship to Arizona State. While there, I was walking to the weight room and the great sprinter, Dwayne Evans, was lifting weights. He started razing me since I was so skinny that I didn’t know anything about weights. So, I hopped on the bench press before heading out to the track. I struggled to lift the weights, but I did lift them. Then I got a hernia. I didn’t know that at the time but, when I was running, I would feel something that I knew was wrong. I ended up going home to get surgery and, afterwards, quit running track.
GCR: What did you do while you were recovering from your hernia surgery and what spurred your comeback?
JG I watched Jeff West and David Mack for a year and then decided I was coming back. So, I started running on my own. I went back out there with Coach McGee and my career started back up. Next, I went to Cal State – Los Angeles. I didn’t run for them, but they gave me a scholarship and used my name to recruit others. I started running for the Santa Monica Track Club and became a professional runner.
GCR: TRAINING Let’s get your opinion on some training elements. You are a student of the Igloi method, which came out of Hungary, and isn’t focused on times as much as it is with effort-based training paces of easy, fresh, good swing, good speed and hard. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this method versus the more widely used stopwatch approach which is more prevalent with APPs such as Strava to time every single run?
JG The advantages are the strength that develops because there is a lot of mileage under the Igloi approach. It’s based on higher mileage than under other systems. As a half-miler, I was running twelve or thirteen mile runs. I guarantee you that most of my competitors were not doing that. On Saturday, I would run repeat miles and hit a total of thirteen or fourteen mile runs as a half-miler. We wouldn’t do that often – once a month. But most of my long runs were ten or eleven miles every week. The speed and not worrying about the time allowed me to have the ability to go out by myself and run and maintain the tempo. If you look at track and field as it is now, there are LED lights on the inside of lane one that help athletes to keep the pace. I wish I had that. But I had to have that LED in my head to be able to beat a quality field that I was facing and to maintain that pace all the way to the finish line. It’s not easy – ask Joachim Cruz. It is very difficult. That is what the Igloi method prepares a runner to do. At the same time, there are risk factors. It is so hard that many athletes break down trying to do this type of training. If I could go back and do everything the same, what I would not do is to run a 1:13 for 600 meters in practice. My Coach would always have me run a hard 600 meters the final day in practice before the first round of the 800 meters. I did it because it worked. I can’t question what Coach McGee prescribed. I’m who I am because of him. He made me. He molded me. He made me who I was, and I didn’t question him. As a coach, I did things differently later on and I would never have my athletes do a hard 600 meters the last day before the first round of the 800 meters. That turned a four round 800-meter competition into five rounds because that fast 600 meters that I ran before the first round became my first round.
GCR: I interviewed Laszlo Tabori, who was coached directly by Mihali Igloi in Hungary and after they both defected to the U.S. in 1956. I also interviewed Jim Beatty and Bob Schul, who worked out with Tabori under Coach Igloi. They each talked of how under Igloi’s method they would have a set of some type of repeats, then eight 100s at a fresh pace, then another set, then eight more 100s and so on so that there were many sets with the eight 100s in between. They all said they could run ten, twelve or fifteen miles in a workout. Is that similar to the type of workouts you were doing under Coach McGee? And how physically strong and mentally tough were you to undertake those long and challenging workouts that were far beyond what your competitors did in training?
JG My coach once had me run ten 400s in 51 seconds, but in sets of two. I would run 400 meters in 51, jog 200 meters, which was just a jog around the curve and back to the starting line and run another 400 meters in 51 seconds. Then I would jog a lap, then do a set of two more. Run 51, jog the curve, run 51, jog a lap. I would do five sets. Of course, I didn’t start off like that. We built up until I could accomplish that workout. Joachim Cruz also had tough workouts because his Coach Olivera was similar in approach though I don’t know if he did the base work that we did.
GCR: COACHING Though you aren’t coaching now, what do you think the future could hold if you did get back into coaching again?
JG If I ever get back into coaching, which I might since I have grandkids who are running, I see that they need guidance. My oldest grandson, Caleb Gray, goes to Loyola High School and he trains for the 800 meters. He ran frosh-soph this year and was a 2:12 800-meter runner. I asked him what his coaches said to do as far as a plan of how to run his race. He told me that they didn’t give him any plan or instruct him on how to run his races. ‘We just get out there and run.’ I told my grandson that he runs other runners’ races. I asked him what his fastest 400 meters was. ‘Fifty-three on the relay split.’ I told him that he should be able to go out five or six seconds slower on his first lap. He was going out in around sixty-five or sixty-six seconds. I told him, ‘Six seconds added to your fifty-three is fifty-nine, so you should be safe in going out in sixty or sixty-one seconds.’ I told him to do that and then to focus on running each fifty meters after that to keep himself consistently moving if he was out there by himself in the lead. I also told him that I would be on the back stretch with 300 meters to go telling him, ‘Run the last three hundred meters like you do in practice.’ He said, ‘Okay, papa.’ That is what he did, and he ran 2:07 in the Frosh-Soph Championships.
GCR: After working for twenty years on motivating yourself to do your best and focusing on your training, how was the transition to working with dozens of athletes with varying degrees of talent and dedication?
JG It wasn’t so difficult for me because I was mainly training half milers. When I think back to my coach, Coach McGee, he was more a coach of long-distance runners, but he was a great coach. Since I was a half-miler, my athletes were going to believe me because I did it. That helped me and gave me an advantage. When I asked them to do something, they knew they could believe me because I did it. Many times in my coaching I shared stories of different workouts I had done and how I completed those workouts. So, they knew I was taking them through the same realm I went through. If I could do it, then they could do it. I told them not to focus on time, but to focus on movement. When I want them to go fifty-two seconds for 400 meters, I will tell them, ‘Run good speed.’ I don’t tell them their times, but I’m timing them and writing it down. At the end, I asked them how fast they ran the quarters. They will say, ‘Fifty-five or fifty-six.’ I’ll say, ‘No. Fifty-two and fifty-three.’ They are shocked. ‘What?!’ And that builds confidence. Now, when I ask them to do something, they will because they have confidence. Every time I had confidence, I ran well. The only times I didn’t run well were when I lacked confidence.
GCR: Let’s discuss the different places you coached and how the experiences went. What can you relate about your first coaching experience at Pepperdine?
JG I was volunteering. That was a weird job because they didn’t have a real team. It was a beautiful campus though and I used it to bring my World Class runners out to train. A lot of times I took a job just to have a training facility. When you are a coach of World Class athletes and you don’t have a track, you have to figure out where you can go to have them train without getting kicked off the track. I would take these small jobs so I could have this facility to use. They knew I belonged there and couldn’t tell us to get off the track right in the middle of a workout. Pepperdine was beautiful though we would catch a lot of wind sometimes since it was open to the beach. I was working mostly with Khadevis Robinson at that time. When I left to go to Harvard-Westlake High School, I was working with Duane Solomon and Khadevis.
GCR: When you coached at Harvard-Westlake High School, the cross-country team qualified for State for the first time in school history. How cool was it to take this group of kids that were fourteen to eighteen years old and coach them to a level that no kids at their school had ever done before?
JG That was an amazing experience. I truly enjoyed my experience at Harvard-Westlake. I had a runner by the name of Chris Cheng who was a senior during the 2008-09 school year, and he was a 2:11 guy for 800 meters. I didn’t have but one year and I had to get him ready. We ran cross country and got ready for track. He ended up running 1:52 and taking fifth at State (note – Cheng ran 1:52.96 in qualifying and 1:53.58 in the finals). He also ran 47 splits on the relay. He was a great talent and very coachable. Whatever I asked him to do, he would just go out and do it. He had heart. All these kids had heart. This one girl was a descendant of Albert Einstein. She was a great, great, great, grandniece. Her name was Lily Einstein. She was a wonder to work with. Some of these kids weren’t great athletes, but they were easy to coach. Lily would tell me, ‘Coach, when I run by, just go beep-beep and I’m going to pick it up. ‘Beep-beep’ was the Roadrunner. Every time I said, ‘Beep-beep,’ she would pick it up. She would make my day. She had heart. We found ways of communicating that would lift their spirits and make them run. These kids accomplished feats they never thought they could accomplish. I had another runner who ended up running for Stanford and ran 1:59 for 800 meters. I coached some great athletes at Harvard-Westlake and genuinely enjoyed it there.
GCR: How did you transition and move to becoming the UCLA Middle Distance coach, which you did for four years?
JG It was hard to leave Harvard-Westlake, but I was offered the UCLA position. If I knew then what I ended up finding out, I would have stayed at Harvard-Westlake.
GCR: How different was it changing from coaching young, exuberant teenagers who were trying to find their way in life to college kids who are away from home with social pressures and higher academic challenges who are trying to balance all that with still being a good athlete who is now facing stronger competition?
JG That was tough. My area of expertise is track and field. But, when you coach college athletes, you take on everything. There were all those factors you just mentioned. I had to make sure they kept their grades up so they would remain eligible to compete. I had to classify the athletes in different groups of who wants to take their talents to the highest level and who took the sport far enough to get a scholarship and now they are satisfied and are giving up. That is what I faced. When we were at UCLA and USC, we were getting some athletes that we called ‘dogs.’ Those were the athletes who were ready to run and wanted to make the Olympic team. Those were the athletes I enjoyed coaching the most. I also liked coaching the athletes who didn’t take their opportunity for granted. When I used to recruit kids. I told them, ‘If you listen, I will help you get better. But don’t take your high school accomplishments as running hard enough to get a scholarship and, now that you’re here, you can pack up your bags and forget the rest.’ I would tell them the scholarship was costing us, so they had to be serious if they were coming to run for us. They had to understand that, if they didn’t work diligently, they could lose their scholarship. UCLA had a different mentality. While I was there, I started coaching some World Class female runners. I was also training some athletes who were trying to become World Class. Coaching them was very enjoyable.
GCR: Let’s talk about your coaching of two great 800-meter runners, Khadevis Robinson, who won five USATF titles and made two Olympic teams, and Duane Solomon, who finished fourth at the 2012 London Olympics. When I interviewed KD a few years ago, we talked about how he missed one Olympic team by a few tenths of a second, made the next Olympic team, missed by a few hundredths the next time, and then made his second Olympic team. I love the quote he uses that ‘A setback is a setup for a comeback.’ I was super impressed with KD. He seems to be such a wonderful individual. How was he to coach?
JG First of all, he was a great individual. To be his coach, he was okay and the reason I say that is I was an athlete competing with him. I was an old man, but he was on my team, and we were athletes together on the Santa Monica Track Club. I never thought I would become his coach. He fell out with Joe Douglass, and said he wasn’t going back to him. I told KD that they would mend their differences, but they didn’t. He was training on his own and asked me what he should do. He asked me if he would come out to where I lived if I could coach him. I said, ‘Okay, but I’ve got to call Joe because I don’t want to interfere with his program.’ I called Joe and he told me they probably wouldn’t mend their differences so, if I felt like coaching him, to go ahead. I didn’t totally feel like it but, it was close to the track season hitting its peak, and I didn’t want to leave him hanging. I told KD if he came out, I would help him, and I ended up helping him with training. He would struggle and want a real coach instead of his competitor. That is what was hard. So that’s how it went. He ran well. The next year he tried to do it on his own and ran into difficulties. So, he called me back and told me, ‘This isn’t working.’ I told him it was because I would have prescribed slightly different workouts. He wrote down the workouts from the previous year and was doing them. He tried to repeat them. I told him, ‘You’ve got to grow. I wouldn’t have given you the same thing.’ He asked me to coach him again and promised me all the things he would do to make it worth my while. I started coaching him, we were having big success and I realized, ‘Wow,’ I can truly coach. That is when I started working with more World Class runners and the rest is history.
GCR: The 2012 Olympic final was one for the ages at David Rudisha ran an 800-meter World Record of 1:40.91 that stands today and Duane Solomon, whom you were coaching, ran a PR 1:42.82, but finished fourth and was shut out of the medals as the whole top eight basically ran personal best times. That was the greatest mass finish in any 800-meter or 1,500-meter race. What are your observations of that race?
JG That was a crazy race. I was sitting in the stands on the curve at the point where there are 150 meters to go. I could watch them all run by. First of all, Duane Solomon is an incredible human being, a great guy to coach, and is very coachable. When you are going to coach an athlete, the first thing you look for is loyalty. The key point to get across is, if we are going to do this and we want to succeed, we have to be loyal. I was loyal to my coach as an athlete. People will approach you and tell you that you should be doing more of one thing or another, but you can’t let that get into your head. You have to listen to the man who is out there with you every day. That’s what I told my athletes. I encourage them to be loyal to have success because if an athlete lets too many spirits get into their head, they will be all over the place. Duane was good at that. He was very loyal, listened and that is why he succeeded quickly when I coached him. We worked well together. He could have run faster in the Olympic final but, with three hundred meters to go, he gave up. He started doubting himself and thinking he was out of the race. He didn’t realize how fast of a race he was in. He was looking at how hard it was to keep up and he was giving up. Then he started catching the guys in front of him. He got on top of it the last 150 meters and started believing in himself. Then he made that stretch run to the finish line and ran an incredible time of 1:42.82. I agree with you as to it being the best middle-distance race ever. I’ve been at or in many of them. That time I ran 1:42.6 for the American Record, twenty guys ran 1:44 or faster. The 2012 Olympic final surpassed my race. That was a great run. Also, they were running fast in the rounds just to get to the final. It was incredible.
GCR: WRAPUP In a 1985 Track and Field News interview, you thought that Earl Jones, Joachim Cruz, and you could all break 1:40. Since then, Wilson Kipketer and David Rudisha have broken the World Record and come closest. Nearly forty years after that interview, what is it going to take to break 1:40 and is there anyone on your radar who may fit the mold?
JG I don’t know all of the young athletes today. I just know there are some crazy fast times being run. If you look at the 400-meter hurdles, Karsten Warholm has run 45.94 over hurdles and that is ridiculous. As an older runner, I can look back at how runners who were older than me or retired spoke to me back then when I was competing. They looked at my contemporaries and me and we were different than they were. I look at the youth of today, and they are different than when I ran. What is amazing is how quickly my era became old school. I retired around the year 2000 and that is old school now. Today there are LED lights on the inside of the track to pace the athletes. There are special spikes with a carbon fiber plate, and I wonder how it would feel to run in them. I would love to have had the opportunity to run in a pair of those modern spikes. Who is out there who can break 1:40? I don’t see anybody running near what Kipketer, Cruz and Rudisha did. There isn’t anyone running as consistently fast as they did. I was following Donovan Brazier closely and he would get hurt, come back, get hurt again and come back once more. I was disappointed that he retired as I was hoping he might be one who could break 1:40. Unfortunately, he gave up his running career early.
GCR: During your lengthy racing career, you raced many extraordinarily strong athletes. Who were the top competitors you faced that you liked racing because you knew it would take your absolute best to beat them?
JG Joachim Cruz is the first on my list. Seb Coe could be, but the few times I raced him, he beat me a couple times and I beat him once. We didn’t race that much. Coe was a ‘pick and choose’ runner. I’m talking about the guys who were dogs. Cruz ran every race. He didn’t duck anyone. He ran race after race, day after day. Steve Cram was another tough guy. I knew I would have to run strong when I faced Peter Elliott. My nemesis, Jose Luis-Barbosa, was another one. That dude was a dog. When you raced him, you had to run. Paul Ereng came and went. I didn’t get to race Wilson Kipketer much as he was a youngster. Those that I named are guys I raced where I knew I was going to have to bring my ‘A game.’
GCR: What about some of your domestic competitors?
JG Earl Jones and David Mack were tough. David Mack was a beast! Every time I raced him, I knew we would have to run. David Mack and I were always keying on each other and would kill each other to try to beat each other.
GCR: Let’s discuss one of the darker sides of our sport – people who use performance enhancing drugs and try to cheat the system. There always seems to be a ‘cat and mouse’ between the tests and the new drugs. As fans of the sport, when we see a great performance, we often wonder if it is real and clean, or drug enhanced. What are your thoughts on this subject as it is related to your competitive days and when watching track and field it now as a fan?
JG That has been a nemesis of mine throughout my entire career. I knew of a few half-milers who were taking enhancement drugs. They even admitted this to me. I was told, ‘Johnny, if you take this, you will be the first man to break 1:40.’ Has it ever crossed my mind? Once it did. I went to the World Championships after busting my tail training and preparing and I lost to somebody who was struggling to break 1:53 and now could jog a 1:43. It bothered me. One time after a race I told my coach, ‘I’m tired of losing to these cheaters. I’m going to cheat.’ He said, ‘Are you through?’ ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Let me ask you this – have you cheated?’ ‘No.’ ‘What’s the best time the cheaters are running?’ ‘1:42 or 1:43.’ Then he asked, ‘What’s your best time?’ ‘I said, ‘1:42.6.’ Coach said, ‘Since you haven’t cheated, why would you cheat and taint everything you have worked so hard to accomplish. Look at it the opposite way. They are cheating so they can run with you. You don’t have to cheat. They have to cheat to be able to run with you.’ I said, ‘Wow! I never looked at it that way.’ I’m not saying they were taking drugs so they could run with me. They were taking drugs so they could run fast and make that money. It is always the love of money that makes people do unusual things. A lot of people will sell their soul.
GCR: You were inducted into the United States National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2008 and also earned inductions into the Santa Monica College HOF, Millrose Games HOF, Mt. SAC Relays HOF, and obtained the key to the city for Santa Monica, Inglewood, Walnut, Agoura Hills and New York. How thrilling and humbling is it to be so recognized for your accomplishments?
JG I received a lot of those awards because I ran for so many years. I had a lot of ups and downs and many reality checks. I had more victories than losses and it humbled me to be able to go through what I call the wilderness. I went through the wilderness and endured it. I’m still a human being. I don’t walk around, sticking out my chest, and thinking I’m better than anyone. I had a chance to stand on a stage and utilize my talents that I was blessed with to the fullest. I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world. Those keys to the cities and those Hall of Fame inductions are accolades showing that they appreciated everything I did for the sport. I humbly received those awards and truly thank my Lord and savior that I had that opportunity to experience this. I had a great feeling when I was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. I stood at that podium and truly received that Hall of Fame accolade because of my hard work. I compared it to boy scout troops having a competition to see who could make a fire from twigs without matches and have a marshmallow roast. There is one troop that rubs the sticks together, finds the amber, and their reward is they can make a fire without cheating. There is another troop who sneaks in matches, lights the matches, and twigs and says, ‘We have our fire.’ Both troops have fire. Both troops have a marshmallow roast. But which troop enjoyed it the most? The troop that earned it. Not the troop that cheated. So, I stood at that podium as one of those troopers who knew I earned it through hard work. Everything that bothered me when I was running no longer bothered me because I saw the light. You can do anything through hard work if you put your mind to it. But it doesn’t take much effort to take a substance and cheat. If I had won that Hall of Fame induction by cheating, I would have questioned if I ever would have won it if I didn’t cheat. I didn’t have those demons following me.
GCR: As you are now in your sixties, as I am, our thoughts turn to having a healthy life so we can enjoy life and give back to the community. What is your current fitness regimen and what are your future goals in terms of your health and fitness, coaching or other aspects of life?
JG I am not going back into coaching except for possibly coaching my grandchildren. I’ve had some offers and have turned them down. I have been stricken with aggressive glaucoma and am legally blind. Jogging is something I don’t do any more because there is an increased risk that I might get killed. My peripheral vision is blind. I see tunnel vision only and the tunnel is sort of blurry. I do believe in my heart and soul that, if it is God’s will, the glaucoma will get better. I will walk according to his will. However, I was forced into retirement because of my glaucoma. Whatever we go through, we find a way to get through the adversity. I have a gym in my house where I have my weights. I have a stair stepper which I use to get my cardio exercise safely. As a coach, I can figure out how to conduct workouts on these machines to give me the feel that I had when I used to run repeat quarters. I get on that machine and I’m breathing like I just ran a fifty-one! My son challenged me and said that his kids could get me on the track and wear me out. I had a challenge. I thought that I would just run behind, follow them, and get them the last hundred meters. But, when I was first stricken, one eye doctor told me I couldn’t work out hard because the glaucoma was tightness of pressure in the eye. He said that hard workouts could cause more pressure and damage my eyes further. So, I stopped working out and I picked up a whole bunch of weight. I started looking like Humpty Dumpty who sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty better not fall! So, I went to a glaucoma specialist who asked me if I was working out. I told him I wasn’t because of what the first doctor told me. He said that I must work out because that increases blood flow that helps the eyes’ health. Then I went back to working out and dropped my weight considerably. But I’m nowhere near half-mile shape. I’m not as big as I was and am back to the normal weight I carried when I was coaching. I do look to get down a little more. The only thing I can do now is speaking engagements.
GCR: That’s great to hear that you have found a way to rise to the challenge of this health issue with severe glaucoma.
JG God has been good to me even through this glaucoma. Friends will say. ‘Oh Johnny – I hate that you’re going through that.’ In the beginning it shocked me as I remember Marl Runyon who ran professionally though she was legally blind. I recall her and I used to feel sorry for her. I noticed her eyes looked different and I asked her, ‘How can you run when you are legally blind.’ She said, ‘I can see, but I don’t see clearly.’ Who would have thought that later on I would have that same disease appear. What I tell people is that, since my eye problem, I see better now than I ever saw in my whole life. In other words, sometimes you have to close your eyes to really see. That takes concentration. Very often when we meditate, we close our eyes so that we can see and have a better understanding of the things we are going through in life. So, with this glaucoma, I read the whole Bible. Since I retired, I have got closer to God. That isn’t because of my glaucoma because I was always a man of God before that. But it took me to another level to where I am more into the word of God. I’m more with the word of God. I’m manifesting things I couldn’t manifest when I had twenty-twenty vision. With that vision, we are looking at worldly things that keep us away from where we should focus. By having this glaucoma, it gave me a focus where I need to have my focus. I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world. If it doesn’t get worse and the glaucoma effects stay where they are, at least I can still read and still write. It’s not as easy as when my vision was twenty-twenty, but I can get the job done.
GCR: What are the major lessons you have learned during your life from your youth growing up and staying predominantly close to home, the discipline that running encourages, coaching others, and any adversity you have faced that encompasses the philosophy of Johnny Gray that you would like to share which will encourage people to reach their potential as a runner and as a human being?
JG It is amazing that we as human beings always want everything to be roses and cherries and everything great. If it were like that, life would be boring. You have to go through tough times in order to appreciate the good things. Just like KD said, ‘A setback is a setup for a comeback.’ So, when you find yourself going through adversity, the great feeling is when you get through it. Any time you get past the tough situations, it makes you see the power that you have. That setback had you thinking you were done, but you didn’t give up. And when you don’t give up there is something waiting for you. No matter what you face in life, take it, deal with it, and get through it. When you overcome these obstacles, no matter what you face in life, you will always be in good hands.
  Inside Stuff
Hobbies/Interests I’ve always liked working around the house, fixing things, and keeping everything in order. One of the main things I like is fishing. I never got into hunting. Fishing is my number one. My father’s side of the family is from Shreveport, Louisiana and we were into country life. We would fish, butcher pigs and chickens. I would stay up late helping with the farm chores and fall asleep in class. Teachers would call home about me falling asleep in class. My mother knew why. It was because I was up late doing farm work rather than studying which I needed to be doing to get ready for school. So, she had me come back to her home which was a good thing. I wouldn’t have discovered track and running otherwise
Nicknames Everybody called me ‘J. Gray.’ As I kept running, I was called, ‘The Grandfather of Track and Field.’ Another was ‘The Gray Ghost.’ I have a nickname in my family that is ‘Gi-Ge.’ I got that name because there was an aunt of mine who read the funny papers and there was a character named ‘Gi-Ge’ that looked like me when I was a baby. She started calling me that. I don’t know if that was a compliment because I never saw that character to see what he looked like
Favorite movies I like ‘The Godfather.’ That is number one. There is a lot of killing and it isn’t that I like killing, but that is a great written movie. There was one, ‘Of Mice and Men,’ where a guy had a friend who was strong but had other issues. That was a favorite. I watch old movies on Tubi that didn’t always get to the box office but are very good
Favorite TV shows When I was a teenager, I used to like watching ‘Room 222.’ I loved Fred Sanford. ‘Sanford and Son’ was a silly sitcom, but I loved that. Another one is ‘All in the Family’ with Archie Bunker and also ‘The Jeffersons.’ I liked all those old sitcoms from back in the day
Favorite music I love music and my favorite artist is Curtis Mayfield. I also like Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin and all the Motown sound. Everybody listened to everything back then
Favorite books I read the autobiography of Malcolm X, which is one of my favorites. I liked Anne Frank’s Diary. I loved that so much that, when I went to Amsterdam, I visited the secret place where she was kept in hiding. It was eerie to see her newspaper clippings on that wall and to actually be in that room. I went back years later, and it had been turned into more of a museum. But when I first went there, it was in more of its natural habitat. There was a bookcase to open, and I had to bend way down. I was so tall, and it was amazing how small people were back then. They were little people. The staircase was very narrow to walk up. It was so eerie. Then I read ‘Anne Frank Remembered’ about the lady, Miep Geis, who was hiding them and that was aa good story as well. I would read a lot of books when I flew overseas to Europe to give me something to do on the plane
First car When I was catching the bus as a teenager from Santa Monica to Crenshaw, I lived in Inglewood so caught the bus to school as well. When I was sitting at the bus stop, I saw this car that cost six hundred dollars. It was an AMC Gremlin. It was black and orange, the Santa Monica City College school colors. So, I bought it because it was black and orange
Current car I don’t drive at all anymore. I do have a car that I refurbished which looks very nice. It’s an ‘S-Type’ Jaguar and they don’t make them anymore. It is so clean. All I do is go out and wax it and look at it. I start it up and sit in it. That’s all I can do. I say I will give it to one of the grandkids, but the kids don’t like the old cars. They want new cars. They want electric cars. So, I have it in the backyard and it is covered up
First Job My first job was at Safeway. I was fifteen years old and not old enough to work. I tried to get the job. The guy said, ‘I like your tenacity. You’re going to be sixteen soon.’ So, he hired me. I loved that job. I thought it was going to be my career. I was ready to become a cashier. It was in Louisiana. But, when I went back to live with my mother, I had to quit my job
Family First, my mom and father divorced. I don’t judge how they raised me. They did the best they could. My father was in the country and was out of town. My mother raised us. She was a single parent. She had a great job, but we had to move very often. Every year we moved. She explained that we moved because she saw the gangs coming into our neighborhood and she would move us out. I have two brothers and our ages are a stairstep. My younger brother is sixty-two, I’m sixty-three and my older brother is sixty-four. My younger brother turns sixty-three on June tenth and I will still be sixty-three. I will turn sixty-four on June nineteenth and my older brother will still be sixty-four. He will turn sixty-five on August fifteenth. So, that is how close we are in age. So, mom kept us from the gangs. She did a good job in the way she parented us. Each generation is supposed to improve. I have my family. I was scared when I had my first son. I was barely able to take care of myself so how was I going to take care of a kid? It worked out well. I ended up having two more kids, raised them well, put them in the best school systems and gave them a great education. I raised them like the Bible says and they are doing well. My oldest son does helicopter rescue for the Los Angeles Police Department. My middle son has a COO job. I don’t know what he does, but he is good at it. My youngest son is trained as a realtor. He is delivering prescription medications now and is going to go into the next Fire Academy with the Fire Department. I have three wonderful sons and six beautiful grandkids. I look back on all my accomplishments, and all the wilderness, the ups and downs, the turnarounds and, if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing
Pets I’ve always had a dog. I had Chows and I used to raise them all my life. I had them all the way until I moved to Florida to work at UCF. I backed off because coaching college track and field took me out of what I was used to doing with my life and kept me so busy with training, recruiting, and entertaining prospects when they came to visit the school. There were so many meetings and ups and downs with the athletes. It was a lot of work. If I had known how much work was involved coaching at the college level, I would have stayed at Harvard-Westlake because I enjoyed that more
Favorite breakfast A BLT – Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato sandwich. It can be a dinner meal for me because I like it so much
Favorite meal Chicken enchiladas
Favorite beverages Root beer soda and grape soda. I’m not an alcohol drinker and never developed a taste for alcohol
Running heroes Lasse Viren was one. Also, Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Alberto Juantorena, Mike Boit, Henry Rono and Carl Lewis
Greatest running moments A lot of moments when I raced in Zurich were great. The American Record was one. A lot of my indoor races were great. I ran for so long that there were many moments. The 1984 Olympic Trials of course was a great one. I think that, if I had to pick out of all of those moments, I would say the 1984 Olympic Trials. The reason is, when I broke the American Record later that year it was big, but not as big as in 1984 because I went from over 1:45 to 1:43.74 and that was huge! So, that was my biggest accomplishment, my first American Record and making my first Olympic team. That outweighs everything
Most disappointing running moment I was in a third world, communist country. I think it was Budapest, Hungary. Todd Harbour, who spoke about the Bible a lot with me, was my roommate. We were talking about God, and I made a covenant with God that day. I prayed, ‘God, if you allow me to win this race tomorrow, when they announce my name, I will get on my knees in prayer before the whole crowd.’ Now, mind you, we were in a communist country. Bibles aren’t even in the drawer of our hotel room. Todd didn’t know I planned to do this. But he said he felt sorry for me when he saw me do it. Before the race, they announced, ‘In lane number three, Johnny Gray.’ I got on my knees and prayed and the whole stadium turned into whistles. You know what that means in Europe – that is booing. I thought, ‘My God, they are booing me. Okay, that’s all right.’ The gun goes off and I finish in dead last. On the long stretch from one hundred fifty meters out all the way to the finish line they were whistling. That was my most disappointing day and I know why I experienced that. I tested God, and we are not supposed to test God. That was his way of letting me know, no tests of me
Childhood dreams A football player. Of all things, I ended up putting on tights and running track
Embarrassing moment number one One time I was talking to my kids about how they had to pay attention when they were doing things. Then I walked into the glass sliding door (laughing heartily). They were saying, ‘Okay, dad. Pay attention. We will.’
Embarrassing moment number two I was running in a big meet. I believe it was in Sydney, Australia. You know how we wear those shorts that have a liner inside. My privates came out of my shorts when I was running. I knew it was out and I was trying to put it back in, but I was also trying to race and get to the finish line. That was embarrassing. It happened to Seb Coe when I raced him one time in Stockholm. There was a picture in the newspaper, and you could see him coming to the tape with his thing out. I teased him forever on that one
Favorite places to travel I enjoy New York. Connecticut is beautiful. The trees have all the different colors in the fall. Utah is beautiful as well. In Europe I genuinely enjoy Stockholm. Switzerland is beautiful, but I don’t know if I would want to live there. Monaco is also amazing. I enjoyed Berlin Germany. We stayed close to their zoo, and they have an amazing zoo. The animals are awake. I could hear the lions roaring and watched them eat. It was the most amazing zoo. If anyone ever has a chance to go to Berlin, they should visit the Berlin zoo