Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007

Johnson, 17, chasing Olympic Taekwondo dream

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Courtesy of Mark Williams
Rockville resident Christina Johnson (facing camera) lands a blow to the head of her opponent on the way to winning a gold medal at the CX3 tournament last summer in Indiana. Johnson, 17, will compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials later this month.
Rockville resident Christina Johnson used to be one of those sports-crazy kids who did just about everything. She played soccer, softball, basketball, even skateboarded and inline skated through middle school. She even harbored some X-Games aspirations.

But the last few years, her life has been solely devoted to one sport, Taekwondo. And now her dreams of Olympic glory are close to becoming a reality.

A third-degree blackbelt in Taekwondo, Johnson, now 17, has dominated the sport at her level the last several years. And after a first-place finish at the Senior National Taekwondo Championships in San Jose, Calif. July 11 — her second national title in three years — Johnson earned a bid to the Olympic Trials Aug. 23-24 at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and a chance to achieve her ultimate goal of qualifying for the Olympics.

But Johnson, a two-time Junior National Team member, won’t have too much time to think about the journey ahead of her. She left Sunday for Bangkok, Thailand, where she’ll compete against the world’s most accomplished college athletes at the Collegiate World Games.

Johnson, who was home-schooled and graduated high school last year, has squeezed some college courses at Montgomery College’s Rockville campus into her hectic training schedule — she spends about 27 hours per week physically training and an additional few hours analyzing tapes of her opponents.

‘‘It’s really exciting,” Johnson said. ‘‘It’s kind of unreal. I don’t have anything to describe what it feels like. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to make the Olympic team, go to the Olympics, medal at the Olympics ... .

‘‘It’s definitely worth everything, or else I wouldn’t be doing it. I’ve given up everything. I basically eat, sleep, train, do analysis and play video games. I go out every once in a while to the movies with friends just to get out. But I pretty much don’t do anything.”

In Taekwondo, which primarily focuses on kicking and using proper technique and agility to overcome opponents, there are six belt colors — white, yellow, green, blue, red and black. Within each color, there are several levels and once the black belt has been reached, there are nine degrees, with each degree host to several levels. In order to advance to each new status, athletes must endure lengthy and strenuous tests of their skills.

Though Taekwondo is an old martial arts form, it was first contested as an official Olympic sport at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. Therefore not all the kinks have been worked out — teams can only select athletes from two divisions per Olympics. There are eight total divisions, meaning only four athletes (two male, two female) will be named to the U.S. Olympic Team.

In order to secure her spot on the team, Johnson must win the Olympic Trials at her lightweight division — other divisions include, middleweight, heavyweight, fin, fly, bantam, feather and welter. Should she achieve that feat, she’ll have to compete at the World Olympic Qualifier in Manchester, England, Sept. 28-30. The top-three finishers in Manchester will qualify for their weight division and earn spots at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

‘‘It’s very rare to find some people who are willing to give up so much to go after a goal and Christina actually has,” said Master Ramy Latchinian, one of Johnson’s two coaches (Master Stephen Dring is the other) at the renowned World Taekwondo Masters in Rockville. ‘‘There are three elements it takes to make a champion. There is the technical — you need to know the basics, the fundamentals of the games — and mental. In the mental, there are two aspects, understanding the spot and rules, and mental toughness. And the last aspect is heart. And that is something you cannot teach. Christine is one of those people who has all three.”

Johnson has a shot at winning Olympic Trials, if for nothing else, because she refuses to lose. She thrives off big occasions, intense environments. She’s susceptible to nerves, but those butterflies only motivate her more.

She has as good a chance as anyone to do well at Olympic Trials. And that’s her mindset. But she’s young, and if she doesn’t make it this time, she’ll have four years to prepare for the 2012 Olympics.

‘‘We’re definitely very excited for her and hope she pulls through,” Latchinian said. ‘‘She has the experience, the skill, the game, she has all the tools to make it. But if she doesn’t she has plenty of time for the next one and will probably be the favorite going in.”

Johnson has dreamt of competing at the Olympics since she put on her first Taekwondo uniform at age 7. Now it could become a reality.

‘‘Sometime we’ll be driving home from practice and my mom will be like, ‘Christina, you’re living your dream, what does it feel like?’” Johnson said. ‘‘And I’m just like, ‘God, I don’t know, it doesn’t feel like it, I don’t know’. I think I won’t realize it until I actually get there and then it’ll be real.”