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July 16, 2019

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Las Vegas’ Gazelle brothers chase gold at Junior Olympics

Brothers Qualify For Junior Olympics

Steve Marcus

Brothers Jayson Johnson, left, 18, and Justin Johnson, 14, run at the Durango High School track Tuesday, July 11, 2017. The brothers have qualified for the Junior Olympics.

Brothers Qualify For Junior Olympics

Brothers Justin Johnson, left, 14, Jayson Johnson, 18, pose at the Durango High School track Tuesday, July 11, 2017. The brothers have qualified for the Junior Olympics. Launch slideshow »

Brothers Jayson and Justin Johnson strain with every step racing down a track straightaway, each desperate to edge out the other.

The two push each other to be better. Their evening workouts get competitive, but nothing like what they’re experiencing this weekend in Lawrence, Kan.

Jayson, 18, and Justin, 14, will compete in the National Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships in their respective age classifications.

“It’s all very exciting,” Jayson said. “It kind of came all at once, but we are taking it in stride.”

Jayson ran the 200-meter dash in 22.6 seconds — fast enough for a fourth-place finish at the regionals in San Diego, qualifying him for the championships.

But where the Durango graduate really shined was in the 4x100 meter relay, where he and his three teammates posted a time of 43.23 seconds. They took the gold medal, finishing nearly two seconds ahead of the second-place team.

Jayson’s Junior Olympic-bound teammates are Jamal Britt from Legacy High, Christian Jackson from Palo Verde and Nikolas Bracken from Bishop Gorman.

All run for the Nevada Gazelles, a track club coached by former UNLV quarterback and College Football Hall of Famer Randall Cunningham.

“Coach Randall has instilled the work ethic,” Jayson said. “He’s always strict about always being at practice, and giving 100 percent while you’re there to make sure your time isn’t wasted.”

The brothers have known Cunningham for most of their lives. Their uncle, Ron Johnson, played with Cunningham for five years on the Philadelphia Eagles.

Cunningham takes the two for private workouts at UNLV’s track.

Justin took up track less than a year ago, and already has risen to the top of the sport in his age range. The 14-year-old won the Nevada state championship in both the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes, and finished second in both events at the regional meet.

“It’s pretty cool that I’ve picked it up so quickly, but I still have a lot of work to do technique-wise,” Justin said. “It’s hard work but coach Cunningham has taught us everything we need to know.”

Cunningham helped his son Randall Cunningham Jr. win national championships and a gold medal in the high jump at the Pan American Junior Athletics Championship in 2015. His daughter Vashti Cunningham represented the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“I don’t think Justin lost a single track meet until he went to California,” Cunningham said. “All the other high school coaches were calling me asking for him to come to their teams. He is relentless and trains really hard. The sky is the limit for him and his future.”

Justin has soaked up every bit of knowledge he can from Cunningham and his older brother.

“I try to help him out with everything I can,” Jayson said. “He’s good at picking things up and he’s coachable.”

Nearly 10,000 competitors will descend upon Lawrence for the Junior Olympics. Athletes ranging from 7 to 18 years old are broken into six age brackets.

It’s where most U.S. Olympians start, and the Johnson brothers hope to follow that path.

If Jayson and Justin end with medals draped around their necks, it will be in front of hundreds of fans in the 8,000-capacity Rock Chalk Park. But they will have earned the recognition through the hundreds of laps they’ve run alone at the Durango track while enduring the blistering local summer.

Even in the triple-digit heat, after Justin has had football practice, the two still force each other to the track for practice.

Next school year, Jayson is off to run track and play football at Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey, Calif., while Justin will start his freshman year at Durango.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Jayson said. “We get to collaborate with each other and we can judge our speed off of each other, and it helps because he’s already almost as fast as me. We are always pushing each other to be the best.”

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