It’s probably bittersweet. You would have to assume that it is. Jamel Johnson (72 kg, Marines) has just knocked off a career milestone but will not be around to harness his achievement’s momentum.
Even before Johnson prevailed last week at the 2021 Pan-American Championships in Guatemala, he knew that his days were numbered, at least temporarily. The situation does well to shine a light on the most significant difference between the All-Marine Team and Army’s World Class Athletes Program. While Army wrestlers are expected to fulfill their off-the-mat service obligations, doing so rarely disrupts their careers. They are assigned to WCAP, for however long; and if sufficiently successful, they get to keep going. When competitive careers are exhausted, duty calls — provided that the athlete has not resigned. WCAP is an officially-recognized unit. The All-Marine Team — despite its decades-long impact on the US program — is, by comparison, a step or two above intramural.
The Marines are without the ability to continue wrestling until they decide to step away from competition. Choices are, the vast overwhelming majority of the time, limited. The Marine Corps does not make offers or suggestions in this regard. There might be flexibility in specific cases. Several wrestlers have received opportunities this way. But ultimately, if the Marine Corps determines an assignment for an athlete, it doesn’t matter who they are or what their stat sheet says. They’re going.
As a Marine athlete, Johnson has collected a fistful of international titles, placings, and was the victor at the ’19 World Team Trials. And following a surprisingly early exit from Olympic Team contention, he bounced back in the same month to finish runner-up at the US Nationals, where he was felled by teammate Xavier Johnson. Next, a spot opened up on the Pan-Am roster. Facing legitimate adversity in the form of a knee injury suffered in his second match, Johnson exhibited impressive fortitude by staying in the tournament and coming away with gold.
The fruits of this labor have been enjoyed. Johnson is especially pleased with his triumph from Guatemala City, and relieved that he will enter this upcoming hiatus on a high note. Which is how to describe it: Johnson is not retiring from wrestling. But a promotion as the S-4 for Marine Aviation Logistics means that he is no longer directly attached to the All-Marine Team. Upcoming new responsibilities are going to hinder his availability and he does not plan on competing again for probably a year — though it is easy to surmise that the ’22 Armed Forces Championships might present an exception.
All at once, it has been a lot to absorb. That’s life. Change often arrives in waves, so don’t bother swimming against the tide. Johnson is keeping a positive, professional attitude about being redirected. Not a surprising development. And you’ll see him again, too. You will also miss him while he’s gone.
Jamel Johnson — 72 kg, Marines
5PM: There was a situation with the Pan-Ams roster. Alex Sancho was supposed to go but had to take a pass because of his shoulder from Olympic camp. Xavier won the Nationals at 72, but slotted into Sancho’s spot at 67 for the Pan-Ams, and then you got the call for 72. Was this something you jumped at?
Jamel Johnson: 100%, 100%. I was just so excited. (Coach Jason) Loukides called me. I thought he was joking because he was giving me a hard time about Xavier going and I was like, Yeah, man, I wish I could go (laughs). But he calls me and says, “Hey, you’re going to the Pan-Ams.” I said, Yeah, yeah, okay. When are you guys leaving again? So he says, “No, I’m serious. You’re going to the Pan-Ams. ‘X’ is wrestling 67 and you’re going 72.” So I said, Are you serious? And he goes, “Yeah!” I just started screaming (laughs). I needed that.
5PM: What do you mean?
Johnson: Obviously, I lost to ‘X’ at the Nationals. And it wasn’t losing literally to him what made it hard, it was the fact that I knew I was doing a fast turnover, I was going to a new unit pretty soon and leaving the team for a moment, or for a year, now. So with that loss and knowing I’m leaving, on top of not performing at the Olympic Trials how I wanted to, I mean… Trust me — I was training everyday. I was prepared, but it was just other people’s day that day.
It was so much defeat that I was dealing with, and leaving with that defeat was kind of messing with me mentally. I was telling my wife, What I need is a win. I need a big win before I leave, but I don’t have that opportunity because I am about to leave here soon. I was just like, This is everything. Obviously, this was my chance to win, and to be able to at least take a year off after a win. Nothing is guaranteed, but you are obviously going to a tournament thinking that you’re going to win.
5PM: The Pan-Ams is one of the US’s marquee tournaments for Seniors. Career-wise, was it important to you to add this kind of accolade to your resume?
Johnson: Yeah, 100%. My two first international tournaments were the University Worlds and the Pan-Ams right after that, and I took third at both. To kind of come full-circle… I hadn’t wrestled at the Pan-Ams since what? 2013? So it had been a good minute since I was picked, or qualified, or whatever you want to call it.
I hadn’t competed there in so long. And like I said, I needed that win. I was going back to a place where I had already placed, though at a very young age. To wrestle at this tournament and then to win this tournament, is definitely good. Especially with the style in which I won the tournament, too.
5PM: In your second match, your knee pops. How close were you to not returning to the tournament after the match?
Jamel Johnson: I was pretty close. I was pretty close, but not because of the pain. I’m used to pain. The pain wasn’t really the issue. I was just thinking about everything afterwards. Like, Ugh, I still have to check in (with a new unit); is this tournament really worth taking all that time off? You talk to yourself. Sometimes, we talk ourselves off the cliff, to literally jump off the cliff. But then I started thinking, Hey, you’re checking out pretty soon to a new unit. If this is my last shebang, I’d rather die training, at least. It was just, You have to do it. Get up.
What really scared me was they couldn’t get it (the knee) back on track. Typically in the past, I’ve been able to get it back on track and it makes me feel a lot better. It still hurts at the time, but at least it’s moving correctly. But for some reason, we couldn’t get it back on track and that was freaking me out. But like I said, I was thinking, This could be the last one. You have to live in the moment. If something really bad happens and you win or you lose, I had accepted both of those situationals, although I wanted to make sure that I would win. It was definitely a mind game. 100% a mind game. But I’ve had a lot of practice with injuries. A lot.
5PM: You had wrestled 72 in your first tournament as a Marine nearly four years ago. Two tournaments in a row this season you’ve gone this weight. Do you like hovering around a little heavier?
Johnson: To be honest with you, I do. My body feels better. I guess because I’m older, it just feels better not cutting as much weight. My back doesn’t hurt, my legs don’t hurt. I guess that’s a bit of a comfort thing. I think that if I do come back next year, I will probably pursue 72. I’m pretty sure.
5PM: I’m not treating this as a retirement piece. If I were, I’d have asked you to block out two hours.
Johnson: No, this is not a retirement. I’m not done. I am coming back.
5PM: That’s where I wanted to seal this up. You had done this before, even recently, coming back from a year off of competition. It wasn’t that long ago. Ellis (Coleman) said before the Trials that he had so many injuries, that he was used to coming back from a long layoff and he felt it wouldn’t affect him. You don’t have that kind of injury history, but you do have experience with taking a bunch of time off and then returning. Do you have a similar mindset as Ellis?
Jamel Johnson: I look at it kind of similarly. I haven’t taken a lot of time off for injuries. I’ve had to wrestle through my injuries but I haven’t had a very serious one where I had to get my elbow fixed, which is what Ellis did. But that has hurt my body, as well. I’d just say, Ah, I’ll fix all of this stuff later. I’m just going to ride with what I’ve got right now. I guess the similarity we have is that I have taken time off, I have experienced it, and I’ve already tackled that type of hurdle and it’s easy to jump over it. Well, it’s easy to jump over it now. I’ve had the practice.
So no, it’s not that big of a deal. And I am definitely going to stay in the fighting mindset. With the Marine Corps, and the character and personality of being a Marine and being first to fight and ready to fight, I’m always going to stay in that mindset. It’s really just staying in shape and ready to wrestle whenever I can. It is staying somewhat prepared so that when it’s time for me to come back, I’ll be ready.