Canon-McMillan grad Johnston finally finding wrestling form at WVU
Chris Mary coached Colin Johnston at Canon-McMillan, and he remembers sitting in a pontoon boat at the Bass Pro Shop in Hershey prior to the PIAA championships talking not about fishing but about wrestling.
The story draws a hearty laugh from Mary, who notoriously refused to allow his wrestlers to sit around and instead forced them to look at fishing equipment all day, but it's also telling.
Johnston loves wrestling.
So much so that he wouldn't let two serious shoulder injuries — a torn labrum and rotator cuff in both shoulders, suffered 21 months apart — derail his goal of becoming an All-American at West Virginia.
After missing basically two full seasons and struggling mightily in his return last year, Johnston has enjoyed a breakout senior season.
He has a 28-8 record and spent most of the season in the national rankings. Despite two lopsided losses in the Big 12 Tournament, Johnston received an at-large bid to the NCAA Division I championships and will open with North Carolina's Evan Henderson (Kiski Prep) on Thursday morning at Chesapeake Energy Center in Oklahoma City, Okla.
“You have to admire his passion for the sport and his commitment to WVU,” Mary said. “He went there on a full scholarship. He made a commitment to them. He wants to finish out his goal.”
Johnston, who last year injured his hamstring, struggled cutting weight and finished 7-12, doesn't deny he's been through a lot.
But he also claims he never thought seriously about giving up wrestling despite this being the 24-year-old's sixth year of college.
“I knew I was going to come back, but I also knew it was going to be a tough road,” said Johnston, who's making his first trip to the national tournament. “I knew I was going to have to work even harder to get back to where I'm at right now because of my injuries and my weight problems.”
That work has impressed longtime West Virginia coach Craig Turnbull, who hasn't had an All-American since Brandon Rader in 2006 and '07.
“It's been a pretty steep gradient that he's had to overcome,” Turnbull said. “He did it, and it makes everyone who's helping him feel very proud of him.
“He's put himself in position where it's a realistic goal to work himself into the national podium with a good tournament.”
Johnston's injury woes started when he was a true sophomore wrestling Edinboro's Kyle Fluke in the Mountaineers' final dual meet of the 2009-10 season.
Fluke lifted Johnston, who fell to the mat on his outstretched right arm.
After missing the 2010-11 season, Johnston returned the following year — though at a November tournament at Washington & Jefferson, Johnston again went down awkwardly, this time on his left shoulder.
Same deal. More rehab. Another season lost.
“I did the same thing for both of them,” Johnston said. “The second one was a lot easier to come back from because I knew what to expect and what I needed to do to get my shoulder strong, back to the way it was before.”
With a glut of talent at 141 pounds, Johnston was forced to wrestle at 133 in 2012-13.
He had to cut weight — in hindsight, probably too much weight — and was hampered all season by a hamstring injury.
“In your mind, you may think you're as good as you were two years ago, but in reality, there's a big gap,” Turnbull said. “The gap takes your confidence away a little bit. Your focus to make that tough of a weight cut doesn't hold up well. Then he pulls a hamstring. That doesn't heal. Now everything's multiplied that, when you're cutting weight that hard, your shoulder's hurt, your hamstring hurts … wrestling hurts.”
But after winning a wrestle-off this past offseason with Mike Morales — who has a win over No. 1-ranked Mitchell Port of Edinboro on his résumé — Johnston secured the starting spot at 141 pounds.
Johnston went through a stretch in January and February where he knocked off four ranked wrestlers in four matches, sending his confidence skyrocketing.
Or, put another way, the exact opposite direction it was in for the past few years.
“He's wrestling with a lot of confidence now,” Mary said. “He believes in himself. With the injuries slowing him down and the conditioning aspect of it, he was struggling. But right now, we're seeing a different Colin Johnston, and I think a lot of it is because of his confidence.”