Baltimore's 'other' swimming star toils in Nall's record-sized shadow

July 12, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Her friends from Stanford University were off to Wall Street or law school or Europe. Jill Johnson was headed east to Harvard, to swim during the day and work as a hostess in a restaurant at night.

She had a degree in political science, a beat-up Subaru hatchback without air conditioning and a dream so big she wouldn't dare tell anyone but her family.

All she wanted was a piece of the Olympics.

To get to Barcelona, Spain, Johnson followed a coach she trusted from one coast to the other. For seven months, she worked so hard in the pool that her legs ached at night. And then she pasted on a smile went to the restaurant and walked up and down 20 stairs, over and over, seating families and kids out on dates for $6 an hour.

"I just always believed that I could get faster," she said. "And I believed I had a chance to get to the Olympics. That's all I needed. A chance."

Johnson is going to Barcelona. But for now, she remains not just a co-star in her event, but almost an unknown in her hometown.

She isn't just the second fastest 200-meter breaststroke swimmer in the world. Johnson is second fastest in Baltimore, performing in the wake left by world record holder Anita Nall.

"You can tell the story of Jill Johnson to every swimmer who has ever been competing for a while," said her coach, Mike Chasson. "Anyone on a plateau, anyone who hasn't made an improvement, anyone who is discouraged, can learn from Jill. If you stick with the sport, if you're motivated, if you have goals, you can get better."

Three years ago, Johnson announced she was ready to quit. Now, at 23, she is closing in on an Olympic medal.

"I think I've surprised myself," she said.

Johnson is 5 feet 8, 147 pounds, broad shouldered and tapered at the waist after years of pulling herself through water. Her light brown hair is streaked blond by chlorine and sun. She considers every question carefully. And even weeks later, she writes a response to embellish a reply.

After serving as an administrative assistant for the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford, directing a Volunteers for Youth program, and working as a staff member in the Harvard Business School placement office, Johnson leaves few details to chance.

"Jill is a perfectionist with incredible inner drive," Chasson said.

For nearly 17 years, hers was a familiar swimming story. Dumped into a pool at age 3. A top junior swimmer at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, the team that now nurtures the talent of Nall. An every-day witness to teammate Theresa Andrews' diligent training toward two gold medals at the 1984 Olympics.

When Andrews returned to Baltimore from the Los Angeles Games, she placed one of the golds around Johnson's neck.

"I thought my time would come four years later," Johnson said.

But the girl who was hand-picked to follow in Andrews' path began souring on the sport as a Dulaney High School senior in 1986. She quarreled with her coach, Murray Stephens. She hated the training, and the hours she devoted to the sport. Still, she went to practice, in hopes of earning a college scholarship.

Johnson wanted desperately to go to Stanford. The school didn't offer her a scholarship, but still, she headed west.

"I was never really into swimming in the beginning at Stanford," she said. "There were so many other things to do."

Johnson played Ultimate Frisbee, dabbled in inner-tube water polo and was the editor of her dormitory's newsletter. She swam, too, finishing seventh as a freshman and sixth as a sophomore in the 200-yard breaststroke at the NCAA championships. But at the 1988 Olympic trials, she didn't even advance out of the heats.

"I felt like a spectator," she said. "I had no hope of making the team. I figured I was going to watch the good people swim."

When Richard Quick arrived at Stanford in time for her junior year, Johnson announced she was going to swim one more season and then quit. She was out of shape, unable to cope with Quick's punishing workouts. But she established a rapport with a new assistant coach, Chasson. He took an interest in her career. Encouraged her. Told her she had the potential to reach the Olympics.

Johnson's times dropped and her career rose. She was second in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes at the 1989 NCAA championships. Quit? Forget it. She received a scholarship for her senior year, was named a team co-captain and won the 1990 NCAA 200 title.

She soon began receiving invitations to international meets. Even made a 1991 World Championship team.

When Chasson received the job as Harvard's men's coach last summer, Johnson had to make a quick decision: stay behind in Palo Alto, Calif., or head east.

"I realized that he was the coach who could take me to the Olympic trials," she said.

Johnson quit her job as a paralegal, loaded her car and drove five days across the country.

She set up an apartment in Cambridge, Mass., training during the day and working at night. She focused on putting together two perfect races at the U.S. Olympic trials in March in Indianapolis.

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