By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Because he’s only been swimming full-time for just over 10 years, BJ Johnson is confident he has ample fuel left in his tank.
His perspective and attitude are still fresh, as are his arms, legs, lungs and mind. As he’s gotten older (he turns 27 on Easter Sunday), Johnson said he knows he continues to get better and faster, and that’s largely what propels him to chase after his Olympic dream.
“I’ve definitely been coming on over the past couple of years,” said Johnson, originally from the Seattle area and he continues to live and train there. “I’ve enjoyed a steady incline since I graduated from Stanford (2009), and I’ve made the last two U.S. National Teams. I feel like I’m here, and I don’t plan on going anywhere.”
Despite his current success (he made the 2013 U.S. World Championship team, finishing 13th in the 200 breaststroke in Spain), it wasn’t long ago that Johnson contemplated giving up the sport altogether.
After what he calls an average swim career as a member of the Cardinal swim team, Johnson took a few months off following his senior season and debated whether or not he wanted to continue.
The time away gave him new perspective, and he slowly returned to the routine of training. He played water polo in the fall of 2009, and that experience back in the water started him thinking about returning to swimming full-time.
By January 2010, he was pretty much back at it full-time, and having re-dedicated himself to the sport he started as a 7-year-old, he found new motivation to see how far he could take his career.
At the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships in 2011, he finished fifth in the 200 breast, solidifying his decision to give swimming another try.
The following summer at the Olympic Trials (his second), Johnson made the finals, finishing 6th, in the 200 breast – a marked improvement from his 41st-place finish four years earlier. He also made the semis in the 100 breast and made it known that he was here to stay.
“I had made some steady improvement through college, but being able to swim and concentrate on training made a big difference,” Johnson said. “In college, I was still learning what others already knew because they’d been swimming year-round much earlier and longer than I had.
“It takes 10,000 hours to be really good at something, and I experienced that in 2011 and 2012. I continued to make improvements with my swimming, paid attention to nutrition and took better care of my body.”
That extra effort and care absolutely paid dividends last summer at the Phillips 66 National Championships, where Johnson finished second in the 200 breast and earned a spot on his first international team.
Reaching one of swimming’s pinnacles at an older age and having started year-round later has allowed Johnson to thoroughly enjoy the experience at a time in his life when others may be burned out or nearing the end of their careers.
And while he acknowledges that starting to swim seriously earlier may have resulted in better results in college, Johnson said he wouldn’t change a thing about the journey he’s taken.
“In high school, I tried some other sports, but still swam my freshman year,” Johnson said. “When I didn’t see any improvement between my freshman and sophomore seasons, I took some time away. So when I resumed, I knew it was the right time, and I was ready to really give swimming the chance it deserved.”
In addition to changes he’s made in his approach to the sport and technique and strength, Johnson also noted having other post-graduated swimmers to train with and race every day in practice has made a big difference.
“Having that group has been a big part of my development,” said Johnson, who swims with Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics under the coaching of Tony Batis. “We push each other every day, and because we have similar goals, we all understand the value this type of environment and experience gives us. We’re all serious about taking swimming to the highest level.”
While he splits time between training and working on research toward his doctorate degree in mechanical engineering in Stanford’s PhD program (completion in spring 2015), Johnson said he knows he is very fortunate to have the opportunities he does this late in his swimming career.
With the 2016 Olympic Trials still more than two years away, and, in his own estimation, his career nearing its end, Johnson said he wants to make the most of the next two-plus years.
Whatever happens, happens, but he knows he will have given it all he has to reach his ultimate goal of swimming in Rio de Janeiro.
“I feel very lucky to have so many opportunities in life to keep swimming,” said Johnson, who is conducting research in energy efficiency with car and truck engines as his doctoral program. Long-term, he said he would like to partner with a company to continue his research using alternate fuel sources.
“Right now, I don’t have to make a decision about whether or not I’ll keep swimming after 2016, but when that time comes, I will reassess where I am and if I still have goals I want to accomplish. I’m just looking toward the future and excited for what’s still to come.”