He Ain't Heavy: Pound for pound, Derrick Johnson is one of the nation's best weightlifters. His twin kid brothers may be even better.

He Ain't Heavy: Pound for pound, Derrick Johnson is one of the nation's best weightlifters. His twin kid brothers may be even better.
Jennifer Silverberg

Derrick Johnson has a chip on his shoulder. He had it as a kid, on the nights he went to bed hungry. He had it during middle school, when he joined Lift for Life, a dingy after-school gym for low-income kids, and it was still there when he emerged as a top Olympic weightlifting prospect. He had it when he graduated from high school — the first in his family ever to have done so — and when he won the first of two senior national weightlifting championships. He had it all through college and beyond. He displayed it for all to see on Internet forums, proclaiming himself the "Voice of Change and Reasoning" and haranguing his fellow weightlifters and the men and women in charge of the sport's national governing body. "I am not here to make friends, I am here to make changes," the Voice declaimed in 2007.

Five years down the road, he has yet to run low on bile.

Inside the Lindenwood University Fitness Center on a mild February evening, standing among a squad of lifters who'd make a killer Smell-O-Vision advertisement for Icy Hot, the 27-year-old head coach of Lindenwood's Olympic-style weightlifting team (which he singlehandedly built from scratch three years ago and which last year took second place at the National Collegiate Championships) buzzes around like a bee with biceps. That's partly due to his build — a scant five-foot-four, Derrick Johnson weighs 160 pounds — and partly to his tendency toward perpetual motion. As of the close of 2011, he's the ninth-ranked lifter in the nation, and tops in his weight class.

Darren Barnes, at left with Derrick Johnson and twin brother Darrel Barnes, calls his coach “an inspiration.”
Jennifer Silverberg
Darren Barnes, at left with Derrick Johnson and twin brother Darrel Barnes, calls his coach “an inspiration.”

Two of the young men who've come to work out — eighteen-year-old identical twins Darren and Darrel Barnes — aren't Lindenwood lifters or, for that matter, Lindenwood students. Not yet, anyway. Half-brothers to Derrick, they're seniors at McCluer North High School. Both have committed to Lindenwood next fall and train with the team in the interim. Both are ranked No. 1 in their weight class. Darren holds more weightlifting records than any current member of Team USA.

Johnson, whom the United States Olympic Committee named weightlifting's Developmental Coach of the Year for 2010, has coached the twins since they were ten, mostly out of Lift for Life, the after-school gym that was his refuge as a teen. That's yet another bridge Derrick Johnson has burned; things started going south in 2000 when the north-side nonprofit spun off a charter school in Soulard, the first of several developments that shifted Lift for Life's focus away from weightlifting and drew the increasingly vociferous ire of the Voice of Change and Reasoning.

Johnson believes he's the only African American to serve as an international coach for Team USA, and this past summer USA Weightlifting featured him on the cover of its inaugural e-magazine. His refusal to hold his tongue has inspired supporters and detractors both, and a reputation as either a passionate pioneer or a prickly provocateur, depending upon which camp you ask.

"Derrick either hasn't learned (or isn't willing to play) the game. He's the guy in the audience who hears a politician not telling the truth and yells, 'You lie!' even though he probably shouldn't," says Solomon Alexander, director of the St. Louis Sports Commission's charitable arm, the St. Louis Sports Foundation, who years ago helped Johnson train at Lift for Life.

On top of his Lindenwood coaching duties — which include helping to supervise the gym — Johnson has spent the past year training for what might be his final attempt to make it to the Olympics. (He missed out in 2008.) The task is even more daunting than it seems. Owing to this country's relative indifference to weightlifting, Team USA will send no more than one competitor to the 2012 games. That's one slot: one man, period. (The women's side has already locked up two slots.) U.S. weightlifting's golden era of the 1950s and '60s is ancient history; as the sport has been marginalized on home soil, Americans have ceded the world rankings to powerhouses such as China, Iran and Russia.

Tonight, though, Johnson is devoting his full attention to his college squad. Earlier in the afternoon, he welcomed a Nickelodeon TV crew working on a segment about America's youngest Olympic hopefuls, which will feature Darren and Darrel. The national championships in Columbus, Ohio, are only a few weeks away, and Johnson, the twins and several Lindenwood lifters expect to do well.

"We used to call this place the warzone," Derrick Johnson says of his old south-city neighborhood, Gravois Park, as his well-traveled Oldsmobile Alero rolls south along Nebraska Avenue. "It's tough to compare it to soldiers overseas, but you had to have that mentality to survive. For us, survival meant eating today, even though we might not have food tomorrow."

He slows to a stop, points to a bedroom window — the one a bullet barely missed while he slept back in fourth grade, in the home where he'd watch All My Children with his mother, who didn't seem to mind if her seven children opted not to go to school. The Crips who ran the block — friends of the family — liked to play dice on the stoop. Johnson recalls a day when city cops stormed the house, guns drawn.

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