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"Growing up, everybody called me 'the fastest kid.' I'd go to school, everybody said 'Oh, he's the fastest kid,'" said Johnson. "I just always kept that in the back of my mind."
Now Johnson will look to be crowned the fastest kid in 3A on Friday at the 3A Outdoor State Championships. He will aim to make his mark on the track in the fastest race in track and field in the 100m, as well as in the 4x100m and 4x200m.
Johnson is no stranger to the biggest stages in the sport-he has two state championship meets, a New Balance Nationals meet, and a USATF National Junior Olympics under his belt. He has somewhere around twelve years of racing experience, from hot summer AAU meets representing Durham Striders to numerous 3A Mideast Regional meets sporting a Williams jersey.
But the UNC Charlotte signee didn't achieve these feats with solely his raw speed. Motivation to follow in the athletic footsteps of his father, Corey Johnson Sr., pushed him to become an all-around athlete.
"He inspired me to run," said Johnson.
Corey Sr. had a gut feeling from the beginning that his son had the makings of a runner.
"I knew [he had running potential] since he was a little, bitty, little baby," said Corey Sr. "When he was running down the hallway, I said 'He's gonna be fast.'"
But for the Johnson family, track and field didn't always come first-football did. Corey Sr. played football and ran track collegiately at Methodist University, and Johnson picked up football as his main sport early on in hopes of mirroring similar success.
It was Corey Sr. who ultimately pushed his son in the direction of track as he watched Corey Jr. grow from the small baby happily racing through the halls into a young, gifted runner.
"I was like 'Now you really need to run track 'cause you'll never know how far you can go,'" said Corey Sr.
Johnson agreed to pick up the sport, mainly as a way to condition for football. Yet when he was around 10 years old, Johnson couldn't help but find inspiration as he witnessed countless other kids around him with Durham Striders develop into elite athletes under the direction of Coach Frank Davis.
"I just leaned on [Davis] because he's coached many high school state champions and he still is right now," said Johnson. "I just saw that he's doing it for them and I [could] see myself [having success too] because I was getting faster and faster each year."
He quickly found himself at the highest levels of competition on the youth track and field circuit like many of his other stellar teammates. Highlights included multiple USATF Region 3 Championship appearances leading up to his high school years, competing mostly in long jump, hurdles, and the 200m.
Johnson's improvement helped him realize that, simply put, racing fast is exhilarating. "I was like 'Well, this is actually pretty fun. I'm pretty fast as a kid, so I can keep on going with this.'" said Johnson.
Johnson continued his dual-sport career into and throughout high school, even starring as a cornerback for Williams through his senior season last fall. There's no denying that Johnson's quickness made him an asset on the defensive end of the field.
"We kept him on the side of the field, basically by himself on the other team's best receiver, and he basically took that person out of the game," said Kelvin Bozeman, a Williams football coach and head coach of the Williams men's track and field team. "That was pretty good to have when you only have to worry about someone throwing on half the field."
However there was also no denying the translation of Johnson's speed onto the track. After a solid freshman season running for Williams, Johnson hit his stride as a sophomore when he tripled in the 100m, 300m hurdles, and long jump at the 3A Mideast Regionals. He found himself setting high goals for himself-sub 11 seconds in the 100m. For years, Johnson thought that football was his future, but that perspective started to change during that during that sophomore season as he started investing himself into the sport.
"Since I've seen [myself] excel more in track, I chose to just focus more on track," said Johnson.
Johnson followed up his sophomore season with a fourth place finish in the 100m at regionals as a junior to qualify for his first ever state championship, where he went on to place ninth in the preliminary rounds to narrowly miss the finals. Regionals was even the site of Johnson's goal-breaking 100m performance of 10.74, finally surpassing the elusive 11 second-mark.
"It made me feel more confident in myself," said Johnson.
Little did Johnson know that his goal of dipping under 11 seconds would break just the surface of his 100m speed, or that he'd go on two have back-to-back memorable performances at two consecutive regional meets.
Going into regionals as a senior last Saturday, Johnson felt ecstatic, more than he had any other race. Bozeman noticed Johnson's determined demeanor, and anticipated that he would possibly set a huge personal record in the 100m.
"You could tell there was something different about him that day," said Bozeman. "He was focused."
Johnson skipped around the Southern Lee High School track and field facility as he waited for his event to come. When finals came, he felt nervous, but in control. As he set up his blocks, he said a quick prayer, hoping to execute his race to perfection. He took a deep breath as he set his position in the blocks. And when the starter raised his pistol and said "set," Johnson remained calm, and then hunted down the finish line with the firing of the gun.
Johnson felt so in control that he didn't even know what time he hit when he crossed the finish line-the race had seemed so easy. "I felt relaxed to the point where I didn't think I ran fast," said Johnson.
It wasn't until a competitor approached him afterwards that Johnson learned his time: 10.47, a new NC No. 1. Johnson was immediately overcome with joy, feeling waves of enthusiasm that he felt immediately before the big race. "I got hype," said Johnson. "I was jumping and skipping around."
For Johnson, setting an NC #1 mark was an accomplishment he never envisioned himself achieving, yet he always kept that low 10-second 100m mark in his sights. "I always set that as my goal. I said 'Well, I'm gonna hit 10.4 in high school,'" said Johnson.
Perhaps what's most shocking is that Johnson didn't even run 10.47 on healthy legs. Two weeks before regionals, Johnson found himself laboring a football-related hamstring strain, and he could hardly run leading up to the crucial meet.
"When I ran that time I just surprised myself because I was running hurt," said Johnson.
It's scary to think about what time Johnson could hit when healthy, since he had the ability to set the state-leading mark on an injured hamstring.
"He's still not 100% and ran that fast," said Corey Sr.
This Friday, Johnson will hope to be fully healthy to secure his first individual state title to cap off his senior year.
But Johnson knows that finishing on top won't be an easy task in a challenging 100m field. He will have to face the likes of Weddington senior and 2018 100m state runner-up Emerson Douds, as well as two other athletes with seed times under 10.90 (E.E. Smith senior Jaylyn Locklear and J.H. Rose freshman Michael Allen).
Johnson will also join his teammates to defend Williams' 4x100m and 4x200m outdoor state titles from last year. Williams will likely have to defeat Southern Lee's NC #4 4x100m team and A.L. Brown's NC #5 4x200m squad in order to find themselves back on top of the podium.
Beyond the state meet and high school, Johnson is already setting ambitious goals. He hopes to one day qualify for the NCAA Championships while at UNC Charlotte, and possibly even qualify for the Olympic Games.
Corey Sr. especially foresees his son transitioning to the highest level of track and field. "He might be able to [run] professionally," said Corey Sr.
But Johnson reiterated that he is most excited and most focused on the now-finishing his high school track and field career right and working hard with his teammates. This model loyalty and dedication that Johnson remains true to is what Bozeman said makes him one of the more exceptional athletes he's come across. "He has great character, and his work ethic is unlike anybody I've seen before," said Bozeman.
Johnson will always remember unreal feeling of crossing the finish line first for Williams in the 4x100m and 4x200m relays at states his junior year. Johnson will always remember the grueling 300m sprint workouts that pushed him to his limits. But most importantly, Johnson will always remember his father's guidance that helped him truly develop into the fastest kid in North Carolina.
"He knows what I have in myself when I don't think I have it," said Johnson.
Update below. Corey Johnson is out of the NCHSAA 3A State Champions as an injury had become worse than he battled through regionals.