For the first time in almost 30 years, bodybuilders surrounded David Johnson. They were all spray tanning to accentuate muscle tone in preparation for the recent Fairfax County Fire and Police World Games.
Johnson said he felt invigorated in returning to a sport from which he had taken such a lengthy hiatus, yet slightly overwhelmed by the scope of the competition.
The Fairfax Games on June 27 had 1,600 medal events and featured 12,000 competitors from about 70 countries. It was one of the largest competitions in which Johnson—a campus policeman at the University of Richmond—had ever participated. Nonetheless, Johnson said he never doubted himself as he awaited the results.
After 13 weeks of preparation and a 29-year respite from bodybuilding, Johnson won gold in his category, which included about 12 men aged 50 and above. Though he did not win the overall competition, he said the victory allowed him to see how he inspires others and how much he has accomplished—and has yet to accomplish.
(For a more detailed, first-person account of the competition by Tabby Bruck, click here.)
Johnson first became interested in his body in middle school thanks to a substitute teacher named Mr. B. He said that the teacher, a muscular man, had inspired him to go home and ask his father for a set of weights. He fondly recalled the red, white and blue weights that would fuel his dreams of one day being as physically fit and muscular as his role model.
From that point on, Johnson always had an interest in physical fitness and placed emphasis on being healthy. He majored in health and physical education at Virginia State University, where he also played football until he suffered a career-ending knee injury. After his football career was over, Johnson turned to bodybuilding.
He went on to win Mr. South Boston in 1981. The following year he won Mr. Virginia Beach, and in 1983, he claimed the titles of Mr. Virginia and national collegiate bodybuilding champion. In all, he amassed nearly 15 victories before leaving the sport and joining the Virginia State Police.
Johnson would spend 30 years with the Virginia State Police—15 as an officer and the other 15 as a member of the Virginia governor’s detail. In the latter capacity he traveled the world, met new people and lived in a way he never anticipated he would.
He said he had never felt the way he felt on the evening of Friday, June 26, though.
As Johnson had arrived at George Mason prepared to return to bodybuilding—no longer a 25-year-old champion, but now a 54-year-old campus officer— he faced steeper odds than ever.
The preparation for the Fairfax Games, Johnson’s “journey” to gold, as he would put it, was not an easy one.
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On the day of the competition, Johnson was fresh off an intense 13-week training plan, which included two-hour workouts every morning. He said the regimen proved exhausting, considering his busy schedule.
“I work the night shift, 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.,” he said.
Already tired after a 12-hour shift and a rigorous workout, Johnson arrived home every morning and prepared his meals for the day. Johnson’s wife, Kristin, recalled his demanding dietary needs. “He had to eat six meals a day, every couple hours,” she said.
Johnson ate meals high in protein and low in fat, sodium and sugar. His breakfast was two egg yolks and seven egg whites, a cup of oatmeal and a cup of black coffee. His next four to six meals that day would consist of 12 ounces of chicken, grilled tilapia or salmon, broccoli or asparagus, and a cup of brown rice or a yam.
Every day, Johnson’s caloric intake ranged between 2,500 and 3,000 calories.
Johnson said that proper nutrition was necessary to reduce his risk of muscle pulls, which he suffers more often than any major injuries. With proper nutrition, rest and loosened muscles, Johnson avoided pulls and major setbacks, though he admitted the dietary restrictions were often far from enjoyable.
“It was a long 13 weeks with no soda, dairy, or alcoholic beverages,” he said.
Kristin Johnson said the regimen had grown wearisome for her and her four daughters. “The girls and I were like, ‘How many more weeks?’” she said.
Johnson knew the training plan had taken its toll on the family, but he knew he was prepared. He said he had turned back the clock by minimizing body fat and improving his overall physique, ready to face the critical eyes of a panel of judges.
“I went from—the last week of March—205 pounds, to 182,” he said. “I cut out body fat, looking lean and fine-tuned.”
Finishing his difficult training regimen required major motivation. One of Johnson’s primary motivations was himself.
“Bodybuilding is a single-man sport,” he said. “You have to be self-motivated. It’s a sport that you really, really gotta want to do.”
Beyond his own intrinsic sense of determination, however, Johnson is driven by a litany of heroes in his own life who, like Mr. B, have inspired him to succeed. When asked what trait allows Johnson to thrive, he pointed not to one noun or adjective, but to his father, who left a simple life in the Bahamas to work his way through school in the United States and become a carpenter.
“He’s the one who really motivated me,” Johnson said. He said the sense of optimism he had for himself and for those around him came from his father’s story. He raised his children to believe in the power of the person, to believe that the impossible can be made possible through hard work.
Johnson was thankful that his own hard work led him to the University of Richmond, where his role as a campus officer gives him another source of inspiration. He said the campus police department and the campus community were immensely supportive of his return to bodybuilding, pushing him along during his preparation and encouraging him to remain confident and determined.
“[The department] knows being fit is important, physically and mentally being able to handle tough situations,” he said. “The chief of police helped me along. All of the guys gave me 100 percent. The staff and faculty have encouraged and congratulated me. [The trainers at the Wellness Center] pushed me along, and three of them—Jason Blake, Sara Kube and Tabby Bruck—attended the competition. It’s been great to have that kind of support.”
Repeated efforts to get campus police Chief David McCoy for comment on Johnson by phone and email failed.
Johnson’s work at Richmond as a police officer is one of his top priorities, and one that he balances carefully with his career as a bodybuilder. In light of police controversies transpiring across the country, he was one of the first officers on campus to wear a body camera as part of a pilot program. He said that cameras worked in favor of officers who were doing what they were supposed to be doing.
“With the police there’s always going to be situations where we put our lives on the line, try to do the right thing,” Johnson said. “Emotions get involved. I try my best to stay level-headed, and I hope things will change.”
Johnson said that he had worked to make a difference in bodybuilding just as much as he had to make a difference in law enforcement. It was not until recently, however, that Johnson realized he would once again be pushed to balance his two passions.
Johnson said he knew he would return to bodybuilding several months ago when a man in a local gym informed him that the Fairfax Games, usually held in other countries, would be taking place in the United States for the first time ever, in the eponymous county. He needed little cajoling, knowing that his career in bodybuilding was far from over.
“A lot of times you say it’s time to give it up,” he said. “But I always in the back of mind said I would do this one more time.”
When Johnson took the stage on June 27, he stood before the judges and audience in a blue Speedo. At 54, he may not have been as bulked-up as he was in earlier years, but he was still in excellent shape. He said he had no nervousness whatsoever about stepping back into a skimpy outfit, and was enthusiastic about showcasing his physique.
He remained calm and confident, thinking of his main priorities in life. “I trust in God and family,” he said. “[This win] is the one I really, really feel emotionally.”
Johnson, who grew up in New York City, is a fervent Yankees fan and cited Derek Jeter as one of his favorite athletes. But even Jeter had his share of struggles in the later years of his career.
Johnson knows that to win gold at age 54 is an unlikely achievement. He understands the obstacles he faced, but he is not one to brag.
“I try to teach others what I’ve learned, try to get the job done,” he said. “But I don’t boast about it.”
Instead of looking to his own personal achievement, Johnson looks to those who supported and inspired him along the way, especially his wife and daughters, without whom he said his success would be impossible. He raised his children to stay active and fit, and said that they participate in sports such as softball and basketball, among others. Though he doubts they will ever follow in his footsteps and take up bodybuilding, he hopes he has inspired his daughters as his father inspired him.
“I always tell them about education, about sticking to the course, about when you stick your mind on a goal, you have to achieve it,” Johnson said. “Everybody has a purpose in life, and mine is to push my family, to make sure my family is taken care of.”
Johnson’s youngest daughter Camille, who is 14, said she was proud of her father for winning the gold medal in an international event. “I’m excited because I know it’s what he loves to do,” she said. She expressed eagerness to see where his return to bodybuilding will take him, even though her mother had initial concerns, considering his age.
Johnson said he was not finished in bodybuilding, and was looking forward to participating in the 2017 Fairfax Games in Montreal and the 2018 Games in Sichuan, China. Until then, he will have his hands full.
In his spare time, he will explore his hidden passion for landscaping and perhaps learn to swim. He will remain an ever-present figure on campus, especially in the gym, where he hopes to befriend more members of the campus community as he works to earn his next gold medal.
“I’m the kind of guy who just loves being around people, who enjoys life and always has a smile on his face,” he said.
Johnson did not hesitate when asked where he sees himself in 10 years.
“There was a guy who was 77 years old, a bodybuilder, and a woman who was in her 60s,” he said. “I felt like a young man. I’m hoping in 10 years that I’ll participate in the world games.”
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