Olympic Greco-Roman coach and past World Team member James Johnson, 61, has passed away

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | Sept. 09, 2019, 11:46 a.m. (ET)
Photo (right) of James Johnson coaching Ben Provisor at the 2012 Olympic Games by John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com

USA Wrestling has received word that 2012 Olympic Greco-Roman coach and past World Team member James Johnson of Phoenix, Ariz., has passed away at age 61.

Johnson was a 2012 U.S. Olympic Team coach in Greco-Roman in London, England, a World Team coach in 2011, and member of numerous other World and Olympic team coaching staffs. Johnson has served over 15 years as the head Greco-Roman coach for the internationally respected Sunkist Kids club. As an athlete, Johnson competed on two U.S. Senior World Teams in Greco-Roman (1993 and 1994).

Known by most people as JJ, he was not only respected for his coaching ability, and also very well-liked across the USA and the world for his friendly, caring approach to life. Although Johnson was soft-spoken, he was always smiling and laughing and bringing joy to those around him.

“Our heart breaks for JJ’s family and friends. He has been a long-time contributor to USA Wrestling and the American Greco-Roman effort. He was an inspiring athlete, exceptional coach and all-around great person. His presence and impact will be greatly missed by our sport,” said USA Wrestling Executive Director Rich Bender.

As a coach for the Sunkist Kids, Johnson mentored numerous U.S. World and Olympic team members. Most recently, he was a personal coach for 2019 Greco-Roman World Team member G’Angelo Hancock, who will compete in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan this coming week. Johnson helped lead the Sunkist Kids to a number of USA Wrestling Div. II Greco-Roman national team titles during his tenure.

He has coached U.S. Senior Greco-Roman teams on dozens of international tours over the last two decades, making an impact on the careers of hundreds of U.S. Greco-Roman athletes.

As an athlete, Johnson was fifth in the 1993 World Championships at 100 kg, and was named the 1993 USA Wrestling Greco-Roman Wrestler of the Year, the first time USA Wrestling presented this award. Johnson also competed in the 1994 World Championships, but did not qualify for the medal rounds.

Johnson won a silver medal at the 1991 Pan American Games. He won a gold medal at the 1986 Pan American Championships, and won seven career Pan American Championships medals. He won three World Cup medals during his career. Johnson won three U.S. Nationals titles in Greco-Roman, and was second in the 1992 Olympic Trials.

He was an NCAA qualifier for the University of Kentucky, competing for Fletcher Carr. Johnson was the first wrestler from D.H. Conley High School in Greenville, N.C. to win a state wrestling title when he won the North Carolina state meet in 1976. He was also the first athlete from North Carolina to be an All-American at the USA Wrestling Junior Nationals.

He also coached on the college level for many years. For 10 years, he was an assistant wrestling coach at Arizona State, working with head coach Bobby Douglas. He was also on the coaching staff at NC State when Tab Thacker was the NCAA heavyweight champion. He also coached heavyweight wrestlers for Grand Canyon University. He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant for his alma mater Kentucky.

Johnson was elected to the North Carolina Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2007. He was also elected to the University of Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame in 2016.

Details concerning memorial arrangements have not yet been received and will be announced when available.