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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPICS

Daughter's Day

Olympic Gold Runs in Jenny Johnson-Jordan's Family, but the Goal From the Start Was Simply Having Fun

September 14, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Not until Jenny Johnson was 11 years old and her brother, Josh, was 9 did they begin to comprehend the athletic accomplishments of their father, Rafer Johnson, and get a chance to brag about him.

"At Jenny and Josh's school, they were studying ancient Games, and the kids came home and asked if there was anything they could bring to school," Johnson said. "I said, 'Of course.' "

Rafer Johnson has always kept his 1956 decathlon silver medal and 1960 decathlon gold medal in a bank vault, and had packed away his many trophies, plaques and pictures. His children knew little of what he had done or of courage he had displayed in his dramatic victory over UCLA teammate C.K. Yang.

"We preferred to display the kids' stuff," Rafer Johnson said of himself and his wife, Betsy. "He built trophy cases for the kids' stuff. To me, it was more important to build their pride."

The Johnson family may soon have to expand those trophy cases to hold another prize--an Olympic medal won by Jenny.

Jenny, known as Jenny Johnson-Jordan since her marriage to former UCLA wide receiver Kevin Jordan, has paired with Annett Buckner-Davis on the top-ranked USA women's beach volleyball duo. Davis also has an athletic pedigree--her father, Cleveland, played two seasons in the NBA with the New York Knicks--but Johnson-Jordan has a rare chance to follow in her father's Olympic footsteps.

"Whatever I've learned from him has been more by example than anything he has said," Johnson-Jordan said. "He just wants me to enjoy this experience. It's going very quickly, and it will be gone quickly."

The pair--friends since their freshman year at UCLA--are neighbors in Tarzana. Ranked second in the world, they will begin competition Saturday at Bondi Beach against Annette Huygens Tholen and Sarah Straton of Australia.

"It has hit me, to a degree, that she is here and in the Olympics, but the intensity isn't quite up there yet," said Rafer Johnson, still decathlete trim at 65. "I'm sure it will be much more intense Saturday. Hopefully, there are a lot of victories on the way. I just hope it will work out well for them. There are a lot of great volleyball athletes, and it will be a tough competition."

Rafer Johnson did not push his children into athletics, but he was glad both wanted to play different sports. Josh, who finished eighth in the U.S. Olympic javelin trials, and Jenny played whatever sport was in season.

"They played one sport to the next until now," Rafer said today, as he watched his daughter and Davis warm up for a practice session on Bondi Beach.

"Every season, they played something different. We wanted them to have fun. I think it is great for kids to have a chance to take part in sports. They make friends and learn to be part of a team. I'd like to see every kid have a chance to do that. If they are not having fun, it wouldn't be a good situation."

Jenny said she never saw her father's Olympic medals until she was in sixth grade.

"I don't think I fully appreciated what he did," she said. "He never pushed us. Initially, they put us in soccer. That was our first sport. Volleyball was something my brother and I just loved to play."

Davis said she has never seen Rafer Johnson's Olympic medals.

"I never asked," she said. "I'd love to, but I'd like to have one of my own."

Jenny assessed the duo's chances by saying: "If we play our style of volleyball consistently, we can beat anyone. As long as we play well as a team and play together, we will be fine."

Rafer Johnson has found it is tougher to watch his daughter compete than it was for him to be out there himself.

"Your emotions run high when you watch your child, it's nerve-racking, because you always want to best for your children," he said. "It puts a lot of pressure on the parents sitting there.

"When I was competing, I could take the pressure off by working out, or running. I can't do that now. When I watch her, I feel anxious for her. But I keep it all inside. I will cheer and yell and offer encouragement."

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