With his wraparound, indoor-outdoor sunglasses, his headphones and his contempt for sideline fraternity during meets, Lawrence Johnson looks about as fierce as a pole vaulter could look. "Sometimes I wish I were a boxer," says Johnson, who has been persuaded to prop his shades on his head during lunch at an L.A. restaurant. "It better suits my competitive persona."
Who knew that behind that persona lay the heart of...Yanni? "He's whom I would compare a lot of my music to," says Johnson, who recently completed a jazz-infused vocal CD, It May Be Right, recorded in a studio in his Knoxville, Tenn., home. "When I started singing with friends in high school, we wanted to be Boyz 2 Men. In college I was part of an a cappella group that was into R&B. Since I've gone solo, I've been working on incorporating more of a classical, instrumental sound."
Forget the not-inconsequential hurdle of persuading a label to sign him. Johnson, who is as notorious as another track-and-field Johnson for announcing lofty goals, says he hopes one day to win a Grammy—to go with, of course, his first Olympic gold medal, which he expects to take home from Greece in 2004. Ashamed, he says, at the silver medal he took behind countryman Nick Hysong's unexpected gold at the Sydney Games, Johnson, 26, is fine-tuning his runway sprint en route to his third Olympics. Since last summer he has supplemented workouts under longtime vault coach Roman Botcharnikov with weeklong sprint-training stints at UCLA's Drake Stadium under the tutelage of track guru John Smith. Johnson tests his speed and form alongside Maurice Green, Ato Boldon and the other elite track athletes who make up the Los Angeles-based HSI training and management group. As a result, with four first-place finishes in five events under his belt heading into the indoor nationals in Atlanta this month, Johnson is tearing up the winter circuit. He is aiming to be in peak condition by June when he will head to Europe for the outdoor season. During that three month period, Johnson says that he plans to refine his new sprint style at every competition that features a runway.
"We're working on his fitness," says Smith, who was approached by his newest prot�g� last summer, when Johnson realized that his sprint time without a pole in his hand was no better than it was with the pole. After each session at UCLA, Smith sends Johnson back to Tennessee with a handwritten scroll of sprint drills and technical tips. "Running more efficiently will give him the extra momentum he's looking for," says Smith. "We're going to have him doing a decathlon before the end of this year." Johnson doesn't have an objection to that. "I do consider myself one of the best all-around athletes in track and field," he says.
Johnson, who scored 7,576 points to win the SEC decathlon as a Tennessee freshman in 1993 and who recently put the shot 48 feet while messing around with training buddies in Knoxville, may well be up to Smith's challenge. However, since he got his hands on some Sergei Bubka videotapes as a kid in Chesapeake, Va., Johnson has been bent on breaking Bubka's pole vault world record (currently 20'1�", set in '94). After reaching eight feet in his first competition, as a high school freshman, Johnson told anyone who would listen that he would vault 16 feet before graduation. Three years later he cleared 17'6". Halfway through high school he told the local paper to look out for him in the next Olympics. Five years later he placed eighth at the Atlanta Games. When he set a U.S. record with a vault of 19'7�" during his senior spring at Tennessee, Johnson started talking about clearing 21 feet. "I've always been truthful about my potential," says Johnson, whose PR, that 19'7�", would have earned him a gold in Atlanta or Sydney.
However, several injuries over the last several years left him unable to compete at his peak in both the '96 and 2000 Olympics. In Sydney he was hindered by the lingering effects of a dislocated ankle and fractured heel he had suffered in June 1999 when his motorcycle spun out on a patch of gravel on a little-used road near Botcharnikov's Knoxville home. After standing up to find his right foot curled grotesquely toward his shin, Johnson thought that he had better explore new career options. "Confidence has always been my edge, but that point was the lowest I have ever been," he says.
Johnson missed several European meets during his recovery, but the blue period, it turns out, was the most artistic six months of his life. After his wife, Christina, detached the Sega console from his hands, Johnson, who had taught himself how to play piano while recovering from an ankle injury in college, bought an instructional manual on jazz rhythms and chords. In his makeshift home studio he started recording music, a hobby that he had all but abandoned after his college a cappella singing group, Soja, which performed at two Atlanta Hawks games and was seen on Entertainment Tonight, broke up in 1997.
A batch from the 4,000 shrink-wrapped copies of It May Be Right, complete with a photograph of the bare-chested Olympian gazing intensely from the cover, is ready to be shipped out to major production companies in the U.S. While the busy indoor season leaves Johnson little time to court agents, Emanuel Hudson, his manager at HSI, has offered to shop the CD to some small outfits in Europe. Hudson was also responsible for Johnson's most recent live performance, in which he sang a song from his new album in front of Muhammad Ali, Monaco's Prince Albert and others at the World Sports Awards in January.
While he misses harmonizing with the singers in Soja, Johnson likes exercising his individual sound without group pressure to incorporate more hip-hop or R&B sounds. "Making music has posed the same challenges as vaulting," says Johnson. "Black people have traditionally been discouraged from the pole vault. Blacks traditionally don't make the type of music—piano melodies with synthetic instrumentals—that I started off writing. I want to break both those stereotypes."
Not content to be the first African-American to claim a U.S. vaulting record, Johnson is convinced that "the Bubka" is prime for breaking and that he's the logical candidate to do it. Pole vaulters, he says, usually peak between ages 30 and 32. "People stick around the sport forever because of the rush it gives you, " says Johnson. "Think about the feeling you had when cresting the first hill on your first roller-coaster ride—that's pole vault."