It’s best to just look at it like this: 67 kilograms was in position to possibly steal all of the thunder at the 2020 US Olympic Trials — and a year-long postponement shouldn’t change that.
Though it needn’t be said, the athletes themselves are always responsible for the perceived strength of any given weight category. Rounding the corner into March 2020, 67 kilos had already delivered more than its fair share of storylines. There was Nolan Baker‘s (NYAC) continued rise; Calvin Germinaro‘s (Minnesota Storm) uncompromising run to the National final; Alex Sancho (Army/WCAP, world #19) winning said National final; three-time reigning, defending World Teamer Ellis Coleman‘s (Army/WCAP) health; the allotment of elite competitors waiting on the Last Chance Qualifier; Sancho, again, for his great good work in Ottawa right before chaos and confusion consumed the entire sporting landscape…
…and Xavier Johnson (Marines) demonstrating that no matter what the scale reads, when he walks onto a padded surface, everyone in his vicinity is under constant threat.
The two-time National Team member and ’19 Final X runner-up was the subject of much conversation prior to the National tournament. It wasn’t really Johnson himself so much that people wanted to discuss, it was more about his weight. For two seasons, the Marine wrestler was one of the pillars of 63 kilograms, a non-Olympic weight. Thus, he needed a new landing spot.
Johnson — despite a chiseled frame that requires calipers to even decipher if any actual body fat is actually present — had been seen as a “tweener”, a tag no athlete wants to wear heading into an Olympic Year. Was he too lean to make 60 scratch? Was he too small to bang it out a full four kilos up from where he usually is?
Those questions followed Johnson to Texas in December. He had competed at 67 the month prior in Sweden, but there was an allowance, and plus, he only had one match (against fellow Marine standout and Final X runner-up Jamel Johnson). But at the Nationals, Johnson took the ball one weight class up and ran with it. He raced through his first two bouts, put in an entertaining tussle against Baker before the bottom fell out, and then proceeded to run the table on the bracket’s back-side — ultimately sealing up third place by getting past Baker in what was one of our Matches of the Year.
After an appearance in Rome in January, Johnson’s next time out was back down at 63 for the Armed Forces Championships where he took top honors thanks to a gripping decision he earned at the expense of Ryan Mango (Army/WCAP, world #14). That was a big win, all things considering. Next on the agenda was the Pan-American Championships last month; only, once Johnson arrived in Ottawa, he learned that the tournament was not going to contest 63.
With or without that tournament, Johnson, like all of the names above along with a few others, was to be seen as frightful contender at the marquee event on the campus of Penn State University. Obviously, everyone knows what happened in the immediate fallout of the Pan Am Qualifier. The Trials were pushed back, so was everything else, and wrestlers all over the country (if not the planet) were resigned to a future that currently presents more questions than it does answers.
Luckily for Johnson, he’s a Marine. His brain is programmed to improvise when plans, competitive or otherwise, are disrupted.
Lately, he has been rolling through life much the same way we all are. He’s at home, enjoying spending more time with his family, and doing whatever he can to maintain his edge. None of this has rattled his cage. The way Johnson sees it, he has more time to prepare to make a grand entrance at his first Olympic Trials when it transpires next year.
As if he wasn’t scary enough already.
Xavier Johnson — 67 kg, Marines
5PM: When all of this happened with the Trials being postponed, did it hit like a dud? Did it all come crashing down on you at once? Or did you just kind of roll with it?
Xavier Johnson: Yeah, it wasn’t so much that it was a dud or a standstill. I just saw it as more time for me to get better, to fill in the weight class. Because, as you know, I was 63, obviously. You know that, but it allowed me to really put the weight on correctly versus going in at 65 when I was wrestling 67. So, I’m taking it as opportunity to get better and be better for when the time comes.
5PM: There’s no getting around the fact that for the wrestlers in our country, most if not all of them wanted more time just because the Trials were supposed to be in April and this season was compressed and crazy, especially considering the qualifying process everywhere. Did you see it that way, like, Hey, if the Trials aren’t for another year, I can use it to my advantage?
XJ: 100%. Any time that I have, I’m going to maximize it to to my to my fullest potential. I was ready for the Trials. I was ready, you know? I had my game plan in place, I knew what to do to be on top and I was going to stick with that game plan. However, that didn’t happen. So I just take it as though I am going to keep that same mindset and I’m going to push it until that due date is here. And I’ll be ready more than ever.
5PM: You mentioned filling in the weight class a little more between now and then. You had Haparanda, the Nationals, and Rome. Was there ever a point during the season where you felt like a true 67?
XJ: I’m not a small 63, so I never felt like I was undersized, but I knew I could really fill in the weight class. In my eyes, I feel like I could be a lot stronger if I did have to walk around at, you know, 65 and wrestle 67. Which I did at Nationals, I was pretty low going into that tournament and Coach (Jason Loukides) thought it was good idea to go up and fill out the weight class. And I do feel great. I didn’t feel any difference. It was just the faces that were different for me, pretty much. I’m just going to maximize this. I am going to grow, I’m still growing. I feel bigger. I feel stronger, and we’re just taking it like that.
5PM: Even after the National tournament, where you performed awesome, and moved through the season, I still didn’t know for 100% which weight category you were going to be in on April 4th. So it sounds like you are definitely kissing goodbye to 60 kilos then.
XJ: I’m all for the All-Marine Team. Whatever spot they need me in, I will be there whether that’s 60, 67, or 63 for a non-Olympic season. I can definitely go both weights. Coach knows that. At the end of day if he feels it’s right, I’ll go back to 60. I’m more than happy to go down to 60 if he feels that’s where I should be. If he feels I should be at 67, then I’ll be there.
5PM: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I’d have to think you beating Ryan (Mango) at Armed Forces was a pretty important thing for you. Was it as big of a deal as I imagine it was in your own mind?
Xavier Johnson: Not necessarily, because at the end of day, that was solely a team tournament and we didn’t get the job done. The job didn’t get done. We made strides in the right direction, and of those was beating him. But that wasn’t my goal. My goal, and our goal as a whole team, was to get over the hump that we have been at for a while.
5PM: Moving weight classes brings new challenges. Do you look at others in your weight class as targets, or do you now simply look at the overall objective?
XJ: Mainly the objective. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look at the other competitors, but I never look at it like, Okay, this guy I have to go harder with, or this guy, that guy… Because anyone can beat anyone at any given time. I just have to better than that guy on that day. I feel like we have one of the toughest rooms in the country when we’re talking about Greco-Roman wrestling, so I don’t have to necessarily make sure I dot the i’s and cross the t’s with this guy but not that guy. I’m getting pushed to the absolutely last limit with the guys in my own room.
5PM: Since all of this went down, how often are you in touch with Loukides and do you guys have training plans? How is this working for you?
XJ: Pretty we’re doing everything the same. Obviously, the social distancing is put in place, but we do a lot of virtual conversations. He’ll call me or I’ll call him to make sure I’m on the job doing the things I need to do. Make sure I’m eating right and that I’m still stretching. The same stuff we do in the room, we’re still implementing those things.
5PM: We don’t know when wrestling competition is actually going to pick up again. Because this season ended before the conclusive domestic tournament, and since that tournament isn’t for just about another year we think, do you look at all of this as one long season? Or do you see what happened this year as its own season, and when wrestling resumes again, that’ll be its own season?
XJ: I think I’m more on the side of season-by-season. I am not going to look at like I’m just pushing this season away. What I’ve done in this season is what I’ve done in this season. What little film I do have from this season, I am going to take that and run with it, and then I’ll start fresh once we’re back in the room. And then I’ll carry on from there.
5PM: If you’re going to isolate this into two seasons, what was your favorite moment or match from this very brief 2019-20 season?
Xavier Johnson: It honestly would have to be Armed Forces. You obviously know the track record between the Marines and the Army with the rivalry that has been going on for years. We came up short in our Greco match. We came up short. But I said this two years at another Armed Forces event: we’re cracking this windshield and we’re right there. We’re right there. It is slowly but surely happening. That was my highlight of the 2019-20 campaign. Just fighting with my brothers. Although we came up short, we could not be any closer to that situation