Tom Kelly: The joy of coaching
Park City native Justin Johnson stands atop CB’s Run at Park City Mountain last Friday on a challenging weather day. The University of Utah coach is on the radio to course workers, checking on the status of the race that is just about to begin as heavy, wet snow continues to fall. It’s an arduous morning but he’s at the heart of what he loves — helping young athletes find their pathway in a sport that has been his life.
Known as JJ, Johnson was a popular young ski racer coming out of the Park City Ski Team in the 1990s. He went on to a career with the U.S. Ski Team and a spot in the World Championships at Bormio, Italy, in 2005, then capping his career with a few years riding skicross. Today, he has over a decade of coaching experience under his belt and is now head alpine coach for the Utes.
As an athlete, Johnson was known for his friendly smile and helping others. After he retired in 2010, he tried to get away from the sport. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to be a lifer, I’m not going to be a coach,’” he said, laughing, today. He got into financial planning for a year, did OK, but he missed being on the hill helping athletes.
He started coaching with the Park City Ski Team, then moving on to the U.S. Ski Team’s development squad. Three years ago, he decided to forego the life of travel and took on the Utes’ alpine team. He’s never looked back.
Despite COVID, it’s been a busy and productive season for the Utes. They’ve been a strong force on the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association tour this season. Last week the tour came to Park City Mountain for a pair of races. The next few weeks will be vital, leading up to the NCAA Skiing Championships in New Hampshire next month.
This year’s NCAA championships will carry a special meaning. At the onset of the pandemic last March, the Utes were on the verge of winning the NCAA title in Bozeman, Montana, before the rug was pulled out. The event was canceled midway through with the Utes in the driver’s seat. Most of his current athletes were there and are anxious to get back to get the job done a year later — COVID willing.
On a morning like this, Johnson is at his best multitasking — wearing the hat of chief of race on a challenging day, as well as providing counsel to his Ute athletes as head coach. “My athletes would always wonder how I got so much energy,” he said. “It was just fun to pass that along to them.”
College skiing in America, especially at high-profile schools like Utah, has evolved dramatically in the last decade. It’s become a melting pot for athletes from nations around the world and with a wide diversity of experience.
“My big misconception going to coach college was that people are just there and moving on,” he said. “The wild thing about this, there are athletes coming in (to college racing) that are still trying to make the World Cup and there are athletes coming off of World Cup careers who are still successful. It’s fascinating to see if you can try to get the most out of them because they are the people with full drive.”
In a career spent as an athlete and a coach, Johnson has earned what he calls a doctorate in ski racing. What he found in coaching was the ability to influence change. “I love seeing people change, love seeing kids learn,” he said.
Utah has long been among the top collegiate ski powerhouses in America. so the bar is high for Johnson on the alpine side in a sport that combines with Nordic for team titles. The Utes won the NCAA title again in 2019 — their 13th national crown.
“I do love the recruiting side of things,” said Johnson. “You’ve got to be ready to win — pretty much winning NorAms or competitive in World Cup for the girls or we’re not going to win championships,” he said.
Collegiate ski racing in America is often cited as being a development ground for foreign athletes. And Johnson has plenty on his Utes team — Norway, Australia, Canada, Slovakia, Sweden, Argentina and the USA. But he also focuses on balancing that with top American talent. “My goal is a good domestic blend.”
The Utes are also blessed with a strong following and support base, enriched by their longstanding alumni base. On a busy race day with two giant slaloms on the schedule, two-time All-American Jim Gaddis, a 1962 grad, was slipping the course to help. Thor Kallerud, who skied for the Utes on two national championship teams in the ’80s, was there, as well.
“It’s all about involvement,” said Johnson, who keeps Ute alumni and supporters aware and engaged. “They know what we’re doing and the messages I’m sending to the team. They’re just really excited to be involved.”
As Johnson reflects on the season, it’s fulfilling to know that his athletes have been able to compete despite COVID restrictions. And the NCAA championships in New Hampshire are looking more like a reality.
Still, it has its complications. With a cap of 100 persons a day on the hill, it’s not possible to run two genders in a day. So each gender skis two full giant slalom races. Four runs on CB’s, a tough World Cup-level hill, well, that’s a punishing day for athletes and coaches.
But this week they’ll be back at it on CB’s as the best collegiate skiers from around the West come to town for the RMISA Championships and NCAA Western Regionals Thursday and Friday.
“It’s been a challenge but I’m glad we’re doing it. It’s better than sitting around if you can do it safely.”
Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This will be his 51st season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.
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