East St. Louis track and field athlete Willie Johnson remembers well the feeling of disappointment of not being able to compete at the IHSA boys state track and field meet earlier this spring.
A fight during the Southwestern Conference Meet, instigated by spectators, led to the suspension of the remainder of the Flyers’ season, including sectional and state meets. Some championship dreams were suspended as well.
A little over two months later, Johnson is now a national champion. The East Side junior captured the 15-16-year-old 400 meter title Saturday at the AAU Junior Olympic Games at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Johnson, 16, finished with a personal best time of 47.8 seconds and was one of three Flyers who earned All-American honors. Johnson is joined by teammates Marcus Lamply, who was fifth in the 400 meters in the 17-18 division, and Darrion Williams, who placed eighth in the triple jump in the 17-18 age group.
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But Johnson, who used starting blocks for the first time in his track and field career during the competition, led the way for the team, coached by Barry Malloyd, by winning the national championship.
“It was hard to believe at first, but now that I’m getting a little used to being a national champion, it feels pretty good,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “It’s something that I really wanted to happen, but now that it did, I’m a little surprised.”
One of the top 400 meter runners in the state along with teammate Deonte Anderson, Johnson and the rest of the Flyers boys track and field team saw their season come to an end.
Early in the Southwestern Conference Boys Track and Field Meet, spectators began fighting in the stands at East St. Louis’ Clyde Jordan Stadium. Several East St. Louis athletes began fighting as well. The meet was suspended and eventually canceled.
East St. Louis Superintendent Arthur Culver then suspended the season and Illinois State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith upheld the decision to cancel the rest of the Flyers track season, including the sectional and Class 3A state meets.
“It was tough. I cried my eyes out a couple of times,” Johnson said. “But what happened to us in the spring, that really pushed me even harder this summer. It really motivated me.
“I ran 48.2 in the prelims but I never saw this type of performance coming. I shocked myself.”
While Johnson shocked himself, his performance wasn’t a surprise at all for Malloyd, who said he saw improvement this summer.
“I told this young man all season that he would be a national champion,’’ Malloyd said of Johnson. “He had that added motivation after the (high school) season came to an abrupt end. On May 10, I saw him crying, wanting to leave, wanting to transfer and several other track members wanted as well.
“It touched my heart. Also on May 10, it was announced that there would be no summer track program. I could never let that happen. I called Willie and a few of the other guys and they said ‘Coach, if you stay, we’re in.’ This summer season has been a healing process.”
Then at the AAU qualifying meet at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., Malloyd started to notice a change in the East St. Louis athletes.
“I saw a change in attitude and work ethic. I told Willie he was going to win,’’ Malloyd said. “What makes Willie so good? DNA. He has a great natural ability. But he wants to be great.
“I recently asked him if he wants to be good or if he wants to be great? On August 4, he answered that question. He wants to break that record of 47.8 seconds and there is no doubt in my mind that by the end of this coming track and field season, his name will be on top of our record board. He ran 48.2 in the prelims and I think that gave him more confidence that he could go even lower in the final.”
Johnson, for his part, is grateful for Malloyd for not letting his abilities go wasted this summer.
“Coach Malloyd, he pushes me but he’s got my back. He’s been there for me and always is there for advice or help whenever I need it,’’ Johnson said. “My goal is to go even faster in the future.
“I want to run in college. I’d really like to go to LSU (Louisiana State) or Texas A&M. They have great track programs.”