In the last 10 years, Olympic track and field athlete Kibwé Johnson has won five US championships with three runner-up finishes, represented the US at the 2012 London Olympics, and competed in the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro. One of the most versatile throwers of all time, Johnson holds the unofficial world record for combination of Hammer throw (80.31m/263’5″), Discus (65.11m/213’7″), and Indoor weight throw (25.12m/82’5″).
After the Rio games, Johnson parlayed his knowledge, passion, and experience for track and field into an assistant coaching position at one of the most well-known residential training facilities for elite athletes in the world. After restrictive public health measures forced changes on the school’s Florida campus that eliminated his position, Johnson decided to look at his situation as a unique opportunity instead of a stroke of bad luck.
Johnson and his wife Crystal Smith Johnson, a former Canadian track and field champion and record holder, moved with their two daughters to Duncan, Canada, a small town about an hour north of Victoria near Vancouver, to be closer to family. For the first time, says Johnson, he had the time and the opportunity to think about what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life.
“I’ve always wanted to coach, but after spending time at the program in Florida, I realized I wanted more,” said Johnson. “I realized that I want to help student athletes achieve their full potential in every aspect of their lives. That includes coaching them in track and field, but it’s more than that. Yes, I want to develop talented hammer, discuss and weight throwers via the academy, camp and club programs we build. But I want to go above and beyond just that objective.”
Johnson says he wasn’t sure there was a place anywhere in the world where he could actually do that. However, when he was introduced to SPIRE IA (Institute & Academy), it checked all the boxes. Earlier this year, he applied to be a “Throws Coach” at SPIRE, a newly created position that will focus on helping student track and field athletes realize their full potential both on and off the track and/or field. He starts in February.
“I couldn’t be more excited to get started,” says Johnson. “I’m used seeing a ‘plug and play’ approach where there’s a formula for a student’s experience in each sport, and customizing it isn’t really encouraged,” he explains. “I can tell already that that won’t be the case at SPIRE.”
Johnson says he likes how SPIRE personifies one of his personal mantras, “Everything in life is figure-outable.” That mentality, he says, is how real growth and innovation happens. “When you’re presented with a new idea, you can either put up barriers or think about its potential on its merits,” he said. “I like how much give-and-take there is among senior leadership at SPIRE. I don’t perceive a lot of ‘contempt before investigation’ here—the thinking is more ‘why not give it a try?’ And if it works, and we see potential benefit for our student athletes, let’s keep doing it. I can get behind that thinking.”
Johnson says his parents named him Kibwé because it meant stone in Swahili, although a distant relative has also told him that it can also mean “big fox.” Most recently, an Uber driver from Africa told him that he understood “Kibwé” to mean “Great Warrior.” Kibwé Johnson embraces all the meanings of his name, but he identifies most closely with “Great Warrior.” Whereas he used to fight to be the best athlete he could be, he’s now looking forward to teaching student athletes how to fight to be the best in every area of their lives, and doing whatever it takes to build SPIRE into the “best residential academic and sports training program in the world.”