800’s Johnny Gray elected to National T&F Hall of Fame

Johnny Gray, the four-time Olympian and American record holder at 800 whose elite career extended into his 40s, has been elected to the National Track & Field Hall of Fame. It was a slam dunk. Johnny never delivered on his pledge to break all masters records from the 200 to the mile, but his indoor 1:48.81 at age 40 will likely be untouched for decades. The Hall of Fame induction will take place at the Reno annual meeting of USATF in December — a consolation prize for watching his protege, Khadevis Robinson, literally fall inches short of making the 2008 Olympic team at 800. Congrats, Johnny! The honor is richly deserved.


Here’s how USATF described Johnny’s career in announcing the news:

JOHNNY GRAY: A four-time Olympian considered to be one of the finest 800m runners in U.S. history, Johnny Gray’s best performance in Olympic competition was in 1992 in Barcelona, when he won the 800m bronze medal. A three-time U.S. World Outdoor Championships team member, Gray’s best finish in that event was sixth in 1991. A seven-time U.S. 800m outdoor champion, Gray also won the 1986 USA Indoor 1,000y national title. He set the USA outdoor 800m record on five occasions and is the current record holder (1:42.60, 1985). Gray also set the USA 800m indoor record five different times, and set the current standard of 1:45.0 in 1992. He set the U.S. 1,000y indoor record in 1986 and was world ranked top ten 11 times. He was ranked #1 in the U.S. eight times by Track & Field News.

Nov. 5 update: Here’s the interview Johnny gave USATF:

Q: What does it mean to you to be elected to the Hall of Fame?
A: It’s a great feeling. It’s nearly as good as the medal ceremony at the Olympics getting my medal. For one reason, I didn’t think I would make it. I had a long career and I’ve done so much, but I didn’t recognize it as I was running. I really didn’t recognize my accomplishments until a few years after I stopped running.
Q: How did your track career begin?
A: My mother and father were separated, and when I graduated to eighth grade, my mother sent my brothers and I to Oregon to be with my father for a year to give her a break. After a year my brothers went back and I stayed a couple more years in Oregon. I took to Oregon and I really liked it. We had this field day, we called it, at the end of school, where kids can do all sorts of activities, whether it was throw the softball, they could run a 200 or a 3,000 meters, and I thought I’d run the 3,000 for fun. I thought I’d run the first three laps hard and get way out in front and make it look like I was going to do so well and then I was going to drop out. However, I didn’t drop out. Each lap my friends were yelling at me to go one more lap, and they kept saying that until I finished the race and I beat the coach that challenged the kids to the race, and I ended up beating him, not knowing what I was doing. I knew that I had competed well and I had won, and that coach asked me to come out for cross country. I didn’t get the chance to go out for cross country because when I visited my mother she made me stay back home in Los Angeles, where I attended Crenshaw High, right in the middle of my 11th grade school year. That’s when I met my coach Merle McGee, who actually got me started in the sport. I was sitting in the stands watching my brother go out for track and Coach McGee asked me if I’d like to run. I said ‘sure.’ He asked me to do four laps easy and I listened to him as a kid would, and from that day on my career started back in late 1977.
Q: How did the 800 meters become your specialty?
A: I started running the 2-mile because of the race I ran in Oregon, so I wanted to run something that required quite a few laps. I was undefeated, but I really didn’t like it. I didn’t want to run eight laps at every track meet. I met a guy named Jeff West, who was pretty good in the 880 running 2:01 or 2:02 as a tenth grader. He was built like me and the 800 requires two laps instead of eight, so I said, ‘Why run eight? If Jeff can do it, I can do it.’ My first race was 2:17. I was able to do it, but I just didn’t do it smart. Because I moved down and it was shorter, I ran harder, and I ran too hard so that I didn’t have a nice finish and I would lose valuable time in the last part of the race because I would be so dead. My coach made me run cross country the following year to get more stamina, and my senior year I went from 2:06 to 1:51 in one year and I found myself at the Olympic Trials, and before you know it I was a runner.
Q: What was it like to be a four-time Olympian?
A: I was a part of four Olympic Games, but I had the privilege of trying out for six. I tried out for 1980, which we boycotted. I made the team in ’84, ’88, ’92 & ’96, and in 2000 I went out and I should’ve made the team. That’s when the winner ran 1:46 and I was 39 years old and I should’ve made the team, but I had an injury in my calf (muscle), where I could walk and I could jog, but when it came to getting on my toes I had a right calf that would cramp and I couldn’t get rid of it before the trials. It cost me in my competition, so I got frustrated at age 40, and that’s when I retired.
Q: Your American Indoor and Outdoor records in the 800 meters have each been on the books for a long time without being seriously threatened.
A: That’s why I’m such a good coach these days, because I can vouch for the kids that hard work does pay off, because I worked hard. I had kids pretty early. I was 22 when my wife was pregnant, and track provided my income, so I decided that if I wanted to make this work I needed to work hard so I could make more money. I didn’t plan to run as long as I did. I just took one year at a time and tried to make the most of each year, and each year got better and better and more consistent. I had a wonderful career. When I look back on it and people remind me of all I did, it makes me realize what all I accomplished, and it makes me feel great. I look at it all as mission accomplished and I wouldn’t trade it all for anything in the world.
Q: How were you able to remain a world class competitor for so many years?
A: We have a saying: Proper preparation prevents poor performances, and that’s the one thing that athletes need to know, which I tell them when I do my speaking engagements. I attribute a lot of this to my coach (Coach McGee). I had great genes, obviously, but my coach was such a wonderful coach, and a lot of it took patience and a great work ethic. He was my coach my whole career. I was fortunate to have one coach my whole career. We still talk to this day. He’s a wonderful man. .
Q: One of your fondest memories has to be winning the bronze medal at the 1992 Olympic Games. What was that like for you?
A: Everything I did, I did it the hard way. I waited until I got old to reach my goals. When I was young I just wasn’t disciplined. As I started learning how to run the 800 I was older, and I put it together back in ’92. With 150 (meters) to go, the Brazilian Jose Luis Barbosa clipped my heel right when I was getting ready to shift gears. I really should’ve won the gold that race, but I got tripped and the Kenyans caught me and I tied up with 120 (meters) to go. Because I was in such exceptional shape I was able to run to the tape to capture the bronze. It was one of the best races of my life.
Q: You were a member of the famed Santa Monica Track Club that featured Carl Lewis and many other great athletes. What was that experience like?
A: That group had a lot to do with what I accomplished. It was a group of very elite athletes, and when one would do well it would boost the next one to do well. I know, because I was one of the oldest members of the club. I remember when Carl actually joined the club, I was his chaperone. I had to show him around and make him feel welcome. I had no idea who I was dealing with. I had no idea he was going to become the great “King Carl” he became. He was a great teammate. What our team was about was “team,” Together Everyone Achieves More. Our achievements were done because we were a close-knit team and we did it together. We took track to another level.
Q: What have you been doing since you retired?
A: I tried several things. I had no idea what I was going to do when I retired, and I competed into my 40s. What can a 40-year old man do, who has never worked in his life, when you just stop and don’t have a plan? While I ran, my plan was just to run and take care of my family and God blessed me to do that well. I have a couple of sons out of college that are doing well and I’m proud of that accomplishment, and right now I’m a head coach at a private high school (Harvard Westlake HS in Studio City, Calif.) and I also do motivational speaking at some prisons. I speak with the inmates and motivate them to come up with a plan in life because that’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t have a plan. I like what I’m doing because I get a chance to make a difference in their lives. I’m looking to do more speaking, like going into the juvenile system to help snap them out of their troubled thinking and come up with a plan to better their lives.

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November 5, 2008

4 Responses

  1. Mark Cleary - November 4, 2008

    Johnny, congrats! It’s about time USATF recognized you for so many years at the top of US middle distance racing.Thank you for the inspirational conversations over the years and your friendship.I hope KD will give it another 4 years he’s the best 800m man to come along since the Great Johnny Gray! See you in Reno!

  2. simpdog - November 5, 2008

    another elite that probably won’t make the transition to Masters TF?..just a guess..congrats to Johnny!

  3. Mark Cleary - November 5, 2008

    He ran a couple of Invitational events when he was 40 and then decided to retire.He needed to get started making a living and is now engaged in public speaking and coaching.

  4. ms leggs - December 21, 2008

    Im so proud of you johnny im so glad i was lucky enough to to know your greatness and your corny funny laugh I love you always you are my hero love always msleggs your friend for ever 1987 congrats

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