One of America’s most accomplished Olympians is a man you’ve probably never heard of — a 56-year-old athlete who is trying to give the Olympics one more go.
Butch Johnson is working on qualifying for his sixth Olympics trip, but the unassuming archer spends most of his time managing a shooting range in Connecticut.
After five Olympic Games, Johnson is hailed as superman in the world of archery. But Johnson is more of a Clark Kent. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, and he doesn’t say much. The shooting range in his basement is unadorned and quiet — a silence interrupted often by the sound of arrows slamming into a target.
Since Johnson’s first Olympics in 1992, he has returned to the games four more times. In 2000, he won a bronze medal in Sydney. His archery team won gold at the 1996 games in Atlanta. But good luck finding those awards in his house. He keeps his medals in a cabinet under the kitchen sink.
Johnson’s former coach, Frank Thomas, says with a laugh: “That doesn’t really amaze me. I would have guessed his sock drawer.”
Thomas was Johnson’s coach in the 2004 Olympics and has been friends with Johnson for more than a decade. Thomas is a legend in his own right; as head coach at Texas A&M, his team won the national championship 13 out of the past 15 years.
He was there in 1996 when Johnson won gold. He says the U.S. team was in a tough match against top-ranked Korea. The Americans were losing, and, to make things worse, the Korean star Kim Boram had just shot three perfect arrows. Gold was slipping away. The Americans needed a savior, and it was Johnson’s turn to shoot. Clark Kent was about to become Superman.
He was calm on the outside, but not on the inside.
“Oh, God, I got to shoot really good here,” Johnson remembers thinking. He was on the biggest stage, in the highest-pressure situation an archer can be in.
“Butch stepped up, and he nailed three 10s. I mean, three dead-center 10s,” Thomas says. Three perfect shots. “It was the most amazing three arrows I’d ever seen in my life.”
The Korean star never recovered — Johnson thinks maybe his perfect arrows psyched him out.
“Yeah, I really think that did make all the difference in the world,” Johnson says. “I think next end, he just got up and kind of crumbled, which is great.”
Now, 16 years later, Johnson is shooting to qualify for London. After the first round of qualification, he is seeded third. If he stays in the top three, he would take the last spot on the Olympic team. If Johnson earns the trip, he’ll be only the seventh American in history to make six Olympic games.
Thomas says that should earn Johnson a little more recognition.
“I would hope that if he makes his sixth Olympics that he would be allowed to carry the flag in for our country,” Thomas says. “You know, to put that much effort in for his whole life, to represent the United States six times, I would think it would be a sin not to let him carry the flag.”
But Johnson won’t think that far ahead. He cautions that in archery, nothing is a sure bet, especially if it’s windy.
“You could just have some bad luck,” Johnson says. “Gust of wind hits me just as I’m letting go of the string, I’m going to miss and nothing I can do about it.”
He won’t know whether he has made the team until June. But no matter how Johnson does in qualification, he says this will probably be his last go at the Olympics.