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.
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.
His mother and stepfather left south St. Louis in 2004, eventually settling in Florissant; Johnson lives in the Central West End. But parked outside his former home, he reverts to an old reflex, jerking his head around every so often. He remembers the day a carload of north-siders beckoned his cousin into the street and shot him dead. One of his brothers started running with the Crips; he's serving time now, for robbery and armed criminal action.
"There were no teachers or doctors or lawyers in this place," Johnson says. "I don't remember those types of people." Instead he remembers the crackheads who turned to crime or turned tricks, and he remembers the funerals.
But he also remembers Marshall Cohen, the middle-class white man from the suburbs whose eclectic nonprofit program for disadvantaged kids rebooted young Derrick Johnson's life.
While growing up in Olivette, Cohen had experienced the textbook 97-pound-weakling epiphany. A summer with a set of $20 barbells built up his body and self-esteem and laid the foundation for Lift for Life, which he incorporated as a nonprofit in 1988, operating first out of a leaky warehouse on Washington Avenue and later moving to the corner of 14th Street and Cass Avenue on the city's near north side.
Johnson got wind of the program when an acquaintance began bringing home trophies, and at age twelve he started catching rides in the white van that swung through several afternoons a week to shuttle kids to the gym.
As Johnson's interest was growing, so was Lift for Life. The bodybuilding fad of the '70s and '80s was giving way to the steroidal excesses of the '90s, so Cohen stressed Olympic-style lifting, a strenuous but uncomplicated regimen. (There are only two lifts in Olympic competition: the snatch, in which the athlete lifts the barbell off the floor and over his head in one continuous motion, and the clean-and-jerk, which involves a pause at chest level.) It's also a bona fide sport that offered the possibility of national (and even international) tournaments. He brought on a second coach, Solomon Alexander, as the team began broadening its horizons.
"When I was twelve, we went to the AAU Junior Olympics in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I'm like, 'Wow! I'm out of the state!'" recalls Johnson. The following year the team traveled to a tournament in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and for the first time in his life Johnson experienced the feel of sand beneath his bare feet.
Though the cultural enrichment was as crucial as the physical and psychological growth, some lessons were the cruel kind. At tournaments Lift for Life was usually the only all-black squad, and Johnson has not forgotten the snickers suggesting that dark-skinned urban kids couldn't grasp the finer points of weightlifting technique.
For the most part, he let his lifting do the talking. Johnson won a gold medal at the Junior Olympics and again at the National Youth Championships. He got so accustomed to winning that a silver medal in Montreal sent him to the bathroom, bawling.
By the time he reached high school, Lift for Life had pulled him up and off the streets. "That gym was all I knew," he says in retrospect.
"Derrick rose above various situations where most kids would've jumped at the chance to sell drugs," recalls Cohen, who occasionally detoured around the Crips on Johnson's stoop to offer the boy a ride to the gym. Derrick even pitched in to help rehab the investment properties Cohen was buying. "He was a good carpenter," the Lift for Life founder says.
St. Louis residents got their first four charter schools in 2000, among them Marshall Cohen's Lift for Life Academy, a middle school wedged inside the Lift for Life gym, alongside the weight racks. The school has since relocated to Soulard and expanded through high school. Cohen says he expects 73 of 78 seniors to receive diplomas this spring — Lift for Life's first graduating class.
The school came along too late for Johnson, who bused to Rockwood Summit High in Fenton, enrolling via the St. Louis area's court-mandated desegregation plan. The commute was 30 minutes each way, but to a kid from Nebraska Avenue, the south-county suburb might as well have been in Nebraska. Johnson struggled at first, failing most of his classes as a freshman. He joined the wrestling team but couldn't afford to travel to tournaments and felt humiliated when his coaches offered to bankroll his expenses. Eventually he began skipping practices.
But just when he seemed to be in freefall, a second guardian angel materialized. Cohen had dragged his troubled protégé to the Marshall Faulk Foundation's gala auction at the Chase Park Plaza as a Lift for Life ambassador. During the opening reception, the young weightlifter chanced to meet George Molsbarger, a wealthy bidder from California and a long-time Los Angeles Rams fan. Impressed by the sixteen-year-old's self-assurance, Molsbarger put in a winning bid on a golf outing with Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Warrick Dunn and gave the prize to Johnson. When the evening was over, he offered the young man a lift home.
"Jesus Christ, the neighborhood was hell," Molsbarger recounts by phone in Burbank. "For a white guy from west LA, I knew I'd be in danger if I were alone."
The dicey surroundings didn't dull the shine the millionaire had taken to Johnson, and he resolved to keep in touch. Two years later, inspiration struck.
"I think to myself: 'I might take a shot with this kid,'" Molsbarger says. "This was a really polite, clean guy. He was in a ghetto, and weightlifting took a lot of discipline. I had a feeling that if I gave him a shot, he might do some good."
Molsbarger proposed a deal: You get your grades up, and I'll help foot the bill for college.
Johnson took him up on it.
If any U.S. university were to up and launch a full-blown program in a fringe sport, Lindenwood is that school. Overlooking the Missouri River in St. Charles, the institution dates back to 1827, when it opened as a girls' school. It went coed in 1969, but by the late 1980s Lindenwood was virtually on life-support. With enrollment at a paltry 800, university president Dennis Spellmann gambled on a controversial, open-the-floodgates admissions gambit: Create programs for non-mainstream sports that are underserved in academia, then recruit tuition-paying athletes to fill them. Though the plan could be mistaken for the plot of a Will Ferrell movie, today Lindenwood's enrollment exceeds 17,000, and the school fields teams in nearly 50 sports, including billiards, bowling, roller hockey, synchronized swimming, shotgun sports, table tennis and, most recently, chess.
"Lindenwood historically has quite a number of sports programs many institutions don't have," athletic director John Creer acknowledges. "We want to provide the opportunity if there is a need among athletes, with the added benefit of bringing in bodies to fill our beds."
Two years ago the school began moving its programs in traditional sports — baseball, basketball, football and the like — from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics to the more competitive National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division II. All other programs, Lindenwood's so-called Student Life sports, remain unaffiliated with any intercollegiate organization. While the NCAA teams offer scholarships, Student Life athletes are eligible only for grants and tend to shoulder a heavier tuition load.
Not long after graduating in 2008, Derrick Johnson proposed that Lindenwood hire him to develop a weightlifting program, and Creer greenlighted the project. Johnson's biggest recruit was a doozy: Fernando Reis, a Brazilian super-heavyweight who broke the Pan American Games records for the snatch, clean-and-jerk and combined score last year and who, at age 21, appears to be a lock for the London Games. What began as a five-man squad now numbers twelve, with another dozen lifters who train with the team but don't take part in tournaments.
USA Weightlifting officials cite the program as a potential template to revitalize a neglected sport that nonetheless has a lot to offer: Its low profile translates to an easier path to Olympic glory and, in the meantime, opportunities to travel nationally and internationally.
Perhaps most tantalizing, weightlifting's fundamental mechanics build strength and explosive power — two attributes that are central to every athletic pursuit. Take nineteen-year-old Tyler Leet. Since joining Lindenwood's squad in the fall, Leet has improved his time in the 40-yard dash from 4.8 to 4.4 seconds — an eternity in sprinting metrics. "Bodybuilders have these big muscles, but they can't even wipe their own butt," says Leet. "People like me do Olympic weightlifting to become a better athlete all-around."
Lindenwood lifters say student-athletes in traditional sports frequently approach Johnson for advice.
"The strength coach was a nice guy, but he had no athletic experience," says an alum from the wrestling team, asking that his name not be published. "So I said, 'Derrick, why don't you teach me how to lift? My body isn't holding up, doing this bullcrap they have us doing.'"
In 2003, having lifted his GPA, earned all-state wrestling honors and graduated from Rockwood, Johnson enrolled at Louisiana State University, whose Shreveport campus is home to one of the nation's elite weightlifting programs. Johnson had crossed paths on the youth circuit with several of the lifters, as well as the coach, Kyle Pierce.
But the freshman chafed at the coach's training regimen, and after a year Johnson transferred to the University of Missouri–St. Louis, then to Lindenwood. He also rejoined Lift for Life — this time in a paid position as its head coach.
Meanwhile, USA Weightlifting was weathering its own turmoil. Through bad investments, the organization had squandered $1.8 million that had accrued from an endowment created after the 1984 Summer Olympics in LA, according to three members of the current board of governors. Many on the circuit complained that the board — which at the time included Kyle Pierce — was funneling Olympic Committee funds to its members' own pet projects, from lifters to university programs to tournaments.
"There was a clear majority of people who didn't like the administration at that time," sums up current board chair Artie Drechsler.
Lacking affiliation with a major program and convinced that promising Lift for Lifers — including his little brothers — were getting shafted, Johnson was among the board's most vehement detractors, firing salvo after salvo on the Web forum GoHeavy.com. He reserved perhaps his most stinging criticism for Pierce, denouncing his former coach as "corrupt" and labeling as "theft" the board's $40,000 allocation to Shreveport to cover living expenses for "mediocre" athletes.
Johnson's online invective, and his demand that USA Weightlifting redistribute its USOC money to the top sixteen lifters in the nation, inspired a chorus of affirmation. "Derrick please get on the Board. You seem to be the only one with common sense!!!" wrote one fellow lifter. Just as often, though, forum members blasted Johnson's jeremiads as hyperbolic, myopic and rude.
In 2008 USA Weightlifting underwent a thorough overhaul. Under orders from the USOC, the entire board stepped down. A new slate instituted bylaws that would ensure each athlete and coach got a fair shake.
Four years later Johnson's contempt for Pierce continues to simmer. "Kyle Pierce is only about the money and how much power he can get out of weightlifting," Johnson says.
Pierce, who runs LSU's Center for High Performance and Development and coaches the nation's top-ranked lifter, Kendrick Farris, is bemused by his former charge's capacity for outrage.
"Derrick came here and won the American Open, Junior Nationals, Collegiates and Nationals — and at that point didn't listen to anything I had to say," says Pierce. "I also bought his books both semesters, out my own pocket. I bought his groceries. I never promised to do it; I just did it. It surprises me, and our kids, that he continues harping and being so bitter."
Eavesdropping on a music class at McCluer North as Darren Barnes sings Reynaldo Hahn's "À Chloris" in falsetto tenor, you might peg the senior as a candidate for a scholarship to Juilliard. But you'd be hard pressed to tab him as the holder of more U.S. weightlifting records than any current member of Team USA.
Scouts from the Olympic Training Center have targeted the Barnes twins as top prospects for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro and attempted to woo them to Colorado Springs, but they've applied to Lindenwood. Preternaturally talented lifters — at five-three, Darren is several pounds lighter than Darrel, which allows them to compete in different weight classes — the brothers are almost unfathomably well-rounded, maintaining high GPAs and excelling in the arts. Like their big brother, who attended PTA meetings and helped them with their homework, they've managed to steer clear of the perils of street life. Unlike him, neither twin ever stops smiling.
Johnson deserves credit for that, says the St. Louis Sports Commission's Solomon Alexander. "The twins have the potential to be greater than Derrick because they had him as their role model. Derrick didn't have that," he says.
As Derrick Johnson blazed his tumultuous path to manhood, Lift for Life continued to evolve. Founder Marshall Cohen has worked full-time at the academy since 2003, the year he recruited Linda Mosby away from the YMCA to take over the after-school program. Mosby has steadily de-emphasized weightlifting in favor of a broader fitness program, incorporating activities like basketball, board games and yoga. To make room for computer labs, she had the gym reconfigured on a smaller footprint. By 2009 a lifting team that at one time numbered 30 had dwindled to a handful.
"I wanted to get on the obesity bandwagon because that's where the grant dollars were," Mosby explains, citing the nationwide push toward better nutrition. "Plus, if I don't offer these kids a choice in activities, I'm doing them a disservice."
Johnson didn't see it that way. In December 2009 he severed ties to Cohen and Lift for Life and devoted himself exclusively to Lindenwood. Tendering his resignation via e-mail, he wrote that the gym where he'd grown up had "become a foreign distant place to me."
Not long afterward, Lift for Life's weightlifting team folded.
"The only reason Lift for Life was created was for weightlifting," Johnson scoffs. "That's why Colin Powell and Marshall Faulk were interested. That's what made it money. We brought black kids to a sport where there's never been diversity."
"It's not that we don't want to do weightlifting, but the most important thing right now is to focus on health and fitness," Cohen counters. "Olympic weightlifting is expensive. If you qualify for Junior Nationals, you might have to pay for five kids to go to California. With basketball there are tournaments all over the place."
That line of reasoning goes nowhere with Johnson. Weightlifting is all he has ever known. Weightlifting is what gave him the tools to pull himself out of poverty and purposelessness. How can anyone fail to see that?
"Derrick's commitment to kids has never changed," says Solomon Alexander. "But he has to realize that Lift for Life still provides a tremendous service to St. Louis."
More than anything else, Alexander regrets that Johnson underestimates the profound significance of his own success: "What resonates more than being a young black man who's a lifter is being a young black man who's a college grad.
"For kids, that goes much further."
On February 7, the day after Nickelodeon visited, Lindenwood's vice president of human resources, Richard Boyle, summoned Johnson to a meeting. The school's vice president of student life and its director of Student Life sports attended as well. Johnson thought they were going to give him an award.
Instead he was fired.
Johnson says Boyle told him people had complained that he was shirking his supervisory duties at the gym and spending too much time working out. He says he was told his recruiting efforts were lacking: Three years in, he says, they expected him to have 50 lifters — a number that matches the size of LSU–Shreveport's roster.
Instructed to pack his personal belongings and leave campus immediately, Johnson exited the meeting, brought the lifting team together and broke the news. Reached at his home that night, he sounded distraught and perplexed.
"They railroaded me," he said. "I'm in the weight room every day. I don't even take lunch breaks. What do I have to do — fill up the water coolers more? Mop the floor? Please tell me."
And why fire him now, with the national championships less than a month away? "We were the best team in the United States," he said. "We beat the programs funded by the United States Olympic Committee!"
Team members were shocked at the news.
"They said he wasn't getting the numbers, but that's retarded," said Corey Murphy. "We have five guys going to the Olympic trials. You can't ask for better results than that."
Said Fernando Reis, the London-bound Brazilian super-heavyweight: "It's fucked up. I don't know what fucking happened."
Sam Chatman, the team's graduate assistant, said recruiting numbers may well have been a factor: Moving to the NCAA stands to raise the school's national profile, but it will cost money. For example, there was no roster cap on the school's football team before the switch, nor any scholarships. It now falls to the Student Life programs to pay the freight through enrollment.
Chatman also wondered whether strength and conditioning coaches at Lindenwood played a role.
"It's possible the strength trainers felt insecure about their jobs," he said. "The strength and conditioning programs are based on Olympic lifting, but the trainers don't work out nearly as much as Derrick. And if you have this guy right in front of you who you know can do a lot better than you can, that's going to make you nervous. The football players had tried to start a petition for Derrick to be the [head] strength and conditioning coach, and there was a lot of resentment."
Two days after firing Johnson, the school named Chatman interim head coach. Reached for comment after the promotion, Chatman sought to clarify some of his earlier statements, which he says were made in the heat of the moment. He says he's convinced Johnson was fired because the weightlifting program failed to achieve critical mass.
A Lindenwood spokesman declined to comment. Fernando Reis has moved back to Brazil, though he says he intends to return to Lindenwood next year.
Members of USA Weightlifting's board express shock at the firing. Board member Michael Wittmer says he doesn't know the circumstances leading up to Johnson's dismissal and is in no position to speculate. But he says it's a shame to lose a coach of Johnson's caliber.
"Derrick is very outspoken, sometimes, in my opinion, to his detriment," says Wittmer.
"But we don't have enough Derricks," he adds. "We need a hundred more of him."
Banished from Lindenwood only weeks before nationals, Johnson grudgingly relocated his and the twins' base of operations to the squat structure at the northwest corner of 14th and Cass, their erstwhile home away from home. There they could be found in Lift for Life's downsized weightlifting area, making use of the Olympic-style platforms the gym purchased several years ago with a donation from George Molsbarger.
Without so much as a grimace, Darren and Darrel hoist barbells with flawless form, then just as cavalierly drop the loads to the mat, where they bounce as if propelled by a trampoline. The twins say they haven't rescinded their applications to Lindenwood, but they've begun looking at other schools.
Johnson's still seething at how Lindenwood treated him, but pain and anger have long been his go-to motivators. "My mother and my father have never seen me lift in any competition," he says. "When I get to the platform, that's what I'm thinking about."
(He will go on to perform poorly in Columbus — ending his dream of Olympic glory in London, though he vows to continue training. Darren and Darrel are destined to bring home gold, topping their respective weight classes and, as national champions, setting the stage for a run at Rio in 2016.)
Today, as on most days, Lift for Life is a hive of activity, with kids shooting on the miniature basketball court or engaged in games of foursquare and Uno, stoked by cheeseburger platters a cafeteria worker patiently prepares. Atop a big-screen TV set, about two dozen weightlifting trophies rise in a golden castle. Most have been gathering dust since the '90s. But lately Linda Mosby has been encouraging Lift for Lifers to take up the sport. Only a few have expressed more than passing interest, but twice a week volunteers ferry the would-be strongmen to another gym to lift with pros.
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