Olympic gold decathlete is inspired, encouraging student-athletes

Olympic gold decathlete is inspired, encouraging student-athletes

Rafer Johnson poses with President Rosser and students.

Olympic gold decathlete Rafer Johnson reminisced about his collegiate days and talked about today's competition with Cal State L.A. student-athletes. Pictured (l-r), Johnson, volleyball player Zuzana Cizova and heptathlete Tuekeha Huntley.

When two-time Olympian and 1960 gold medalist Rafer Johnson visited Cal State L.A. in late July, it was a bit like taking a trip down memory lane.

Johnson didn’t attend Cal State L.A.—although he attended the ARCO Jesse Owens Games national youth track and field championships on the campus more than 20 years ago. Instead, what got him thinking back to his collegiate days at UCLA was when he met five former and current Cal State L.A. student-athletes: decathlete and four-time All-American track and field standout Desi Burt, 2009 All-American decathlete Josh Linker, sophomore and 2010 All-American heptathlete Tuekeha Huntley, 2009 All-American soccer player Liz Franco, and volleyball player Zuzana Cizova, the 2009 California Collegiate Athletic Association Newcomer of the Year.

“It was great fun meeting the student-athletes. I traveled down the same road they are traveling now,” Johnson said. “They have gotten nice starts in their local communities and now they are among the best in their sports of volleyball, soccer, and track and field. Those are all great sports. “

Johnson will be honored with the 2010 Joe Shapiro Award at the 13th annual Billie Jean King & Friends Event in September. The award recognizes individuals who display exemplary characteristics of humanitarianism, leadership and vision. Johnson, one of the founding members of Special Olympics Southern California, has long been a champion in athletics and humanitarian efforts. He was elected—along with Arthur Ashe—into the first class of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame in 1994 and also named as one of the 100 Most Influential Student-Athletes of the past 100 years by the NCAA.

President James M. Rosser and Rafer Johnson enjoy a laugh.

Johnson and CSULA President James M. Rosser.

Johnson said he has enjoyed seeing the positive influences that organizations like the Special Olympics and the Rafer Johnson Children’s Center—a Bakersfield facility named in his honor that provides special education for ages birth to five—can have. “Over the years, we have seen a lot of positive changes,” Johnson said. “ The Special Olympics have given children the opportunity to experience things in life and also to be positive influences in their communities. It’s more than just the competition itself, it’s more about life lessons, about giving them opportunities to travel, about just a myriad of other positive things.

“I don’t believe somebody can be the best they can be without some help,” he added. “…To me, that’s one of the best contributions we can make—to help make sure each of our fellow citizens have the opportunity to do things they like to do.”

Johnson was a versatile athlete growing up and he played football, baseball and basketball in high school. He played collegiate basketball for one season under the late legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, but track and field soon took center stage.

Competing in his first decathlon as a freshman at UCLA in 1954—during his first year of competition—Johnson broke the world record. Then, despite injuries, he earned the silver medal in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne and captured the gold medal four years later in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games.

Johnson was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1958, and earned the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States in 1960. In 1998, Johnson was named one of ESPN’s 100 Greatest North American Athletes of the 20th Century.

“As a decathlete, it was an honor to meet someone with as many accomplishments as Rafer Johnson,” Burt said. “He still looks young; he looks like he could still do the decathlon.”

Fellow teammate, decathlete Linker, also noted: “I was nervous to meet him, but when I met him, it was great. He wanted to know things about us. It’s always nice to see someone continue to help out in the community, especially a big name like him.”

The 13th annual Billie Jean King & Friends Event will be held on September 25 at the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa.

For further sponsor or event information, check out the athletics website at www.CSULAathletics.com or call (323) 343-3080.