Twenty years ago, when Steve Johnson was in high school, he wasn't exactly a celebrity athlete. He played soccer, but, of course, soccer was a sport for people that didn't speak the language. He skied, but that was mainly something you did when you sluffed school. He also rode a bike, but that was just for going to the 7-Eleven.
At 6-feet, 155 pounds, Johnson wasn't a BJOC (Big Jock on Campus). The closest he came to a varsity letter was competing on the debate team, which didn't necessarily impress the captain of the football team.None of the cheerleaders asked him out. Nobody called him a hunk. Johnson wasn't a candidate for all-America; he was a candidate for the chess team. He wasn't the guy who beat up on kids in the parking lot. He never ran blinding sprints. He couldn't dunk the basketball and he couldn't hit a baseball 400 feet. He couldn't bring down Golden Richards on a football field.
But 20 years later, Johnson is a physiological icon. Now he is the BJOC. While most of the football stars are letting out the back of their trousers and shopping for zip-up jumpsuits, Johnson still weighs 155 - a weight most of his graduating classmates would in, uh, hindsight, like to be carrying today. Johnson can ride a bike 30 miles an hour for over an hour and barely break a sweat. His body fat is 4 1/2 percent and his resting pulse rate is a cool 45, at least 20 beats a minute lower than normal.
As they say in prose, the race doesn't always go to the biggest and strongest and fastest. It usually goes to the fittest.
Johnson is director of the Human Performance Lab on the University of Utah campus. After competing on the Ute ski team in college he became interested in human performance on two levels: other peoples' and his own. About the time he was talked into bicycle racing by a member of the U.S. team, he was beginning research into humankind's capacity to peform.
What he found over the years was sometimes shocking. He found purportedly fit football players who were far too high in body fat composition - and making it worse by their diets. He found basketball players training on long distance running, but unable to stand up to the explosive style of the game.
He also found a way to turn himself into a laboratory rat. After years of applying reasearch on himself, Johnson reached the pinnacle of his athletic career by winning the age graded world road race championship last summer.
He owes it all to his ergometer.
While other bike racers will spend 40 hours a week training for races outdoors, he will spend about 15. The rest is in the lab, adjusting the resistance on his ergometer, hooking and unhooking electrodes, punching computer keyboards and charting data. He can check his body fat, heart rate, hematocrit, aerobic power, anaerobic power and do everything else but check his IQ.
As an offshoot of the Human Performance Lab, Johnson and a number of other University of Utah experts have created the PEAK Academy (Performance Enhancement through Applied Knowledge). It is a vehicle through which anyone from the general public may receive a rundown on their physical potential and current health status. For a fee comparable to the cost of a doctor's physical, one may be tested and issued a profile, and then be counseled as to what sports he would do best in, and what areas to strengthen. You can get custom made weight programs, sports psychology counseling and diet and nutrition recommendations along with the standard conditioning recommendations.
Feeling tired in the afternoons? Need to improve your acceleration? Extend your endurance? Maximize your efficiency? Call PEAK. Golfers will golf better, wrestlers wrestle better, runners run better and sleepers will even sleep better.
The question begs: Could they create the perfect athete in their own lab? Could a parent bring his seven-year-old in on a regular basis and turn him into Ivan Drago?
"Parents do come in with their kids," says Johnson modestly. "We can tell them the sports they're most likely to succeed in and recommend a program. But as far as creating an athlete in a test tube, well, I try to temper that with the psychology involved. You don't know how a kid will react in competiton. Some thrive in team situations and some are inclined toward individual sports. There are a lot of variables, so it's not like we can guarantee to turn out a sports animal."
Johnson knows one thing: It worked for him. He won his world cycling title over a host of world class bicyclists who spend far more time training outdoors and far less time in labs. "There's no way I could have won without my work in the lab," says Johnson, looking across the room filled with gadgets. "I'll admit genetics is a big part. But there's no way I could have performed at the level I have without this."
Johnson's lab is matched by perhaps only a half dozen others in the country. They have worked with the U.S. Ski Team, the U.S. Skating Team and the United States Gymnastics Federation.
So if you're planning on knocking out Tyson or just cutting down your time in the 10K, it wouldn't hurt to check in at the lab first. They might make you a monster in the market.