Wrestling turns into the reward for one man’s positive change

Karl Johnson, 55, dedicated himself to getting in shape and turned back to the sport he loves

Karl Johnson is back.

He is back in shape, back in his sport, back to his life.

He is not going back in time. No, he is very proud of his present.

He will be going back to living a dream, though, competing in wrestling at the age of 55.

Because he can.

Karl Johnson of La Center is planning to return to the wrestling mat at 55 years of age. He has lost more than 60 pounds the past year. Photo by Mike Schultz
Karl Johnson of La Center is planning to return to the wrestling mat at 55 years of age. He has lost more than 60 pounds the past year. Photo by Mike Schultz

“I’ve got the lion in me. I’m fearful of nobody on the mat,” Johnson said. “To win or not, we’re having fun. I’m still the lion.”

A year ago, all of this would have seemed impossible.

Johnson, a teacher in the Battle Ground School District who lives in La Center, has lost 70 pounds since a life-changing moment last spring.

Karl and his wife Julianne have five grown children plus five children who range in ages between 7 and 13 years old. There is a lot of love in the Johnson family, but also a lot of chaos. It has taken Karl and Julianne a lifetime together of coming up with the perfect tag-team approach to parenting.

Last May, Julianne got sick and was hospitalized for an extended period of time. That left Karl, concerned for Julianne of course, but also without 50 percent of the parenting team. Work. Hospital. Home. He was trying to do it all, trying to do too much.

He was keeping everything to himself.

Until he nearly collapsed under his own mental health weight.

“You need to do something. You need to talk to someone,” Johnson recalled thinking to himself.

He found out he was not alone.

“There are a lot of people dealing with holding it all inside,” he said.

Karl Johnson was a standout wrestler in his high school days. Now 55, he will return to the mat later this month in Las Vegas as part of the veterans classification of the U.S. Open. Photo by Mike Schultz
Karl Johnson was a standout wrestler in his high school days. Now 55, he will return to the mat later this month in Las Vegas as part of the veterans classification of the U.S. Open. Photo by Mike Schultz

Johnson got help, and then he set up a plan of action to keep helping himself.

With so much more to do at home during that time of Julianne’s health scare, it became apparent to Karl that his physical fitness was a problem, too. At 5-feet, 7-inches, he was 227 pounds.

He went to the track at La Center High School, where he has been an assistant coach in football and wrestling.

“I could barely make it around the track,” he recalled of that first day. “A couple football players said, ‘You got this Coach!’”

He returned the next day and completed two laps. Soon, he was at four laps.

By the middle of the summer, he could run a 5K.

The pounds were coming off, and he was feeling better about himself.

“We were just eating right and running,” Johnson said.

Then his oldest son, Stephen, had an idea.

“Why don’t you wrestle?” Stephen asked his dad. “You’re training. You might as well.”

Stephen Johnson (left) and Jake Johnson (right) are coaching their dad Karl Johnson in his return to wrestling at the age of 55. Photo by Mike Schultz
Stephen Johnson (left) and Jake Johnson (right) are coaching their dad Karl Johnson in his return to wrestling at the age of 55. Photo by Mike Schultz

That is when “Krazy Karl” came up with the goal. Johnson could recall when he was one of the best in his region when he wrestled in high school in California. He wrestled in college, too. Also in the Army.

Yes, it had been years, but Karl Johnson said he owed it to his family, to his friends, and to himself to give it a go.

If all goes to schedule, Julianne — healthy again — and four of their older children will be in Las Vegas to watch Karl wrestle in the veterans classification of the U.S. Open on April 24.

Stephen Johnson, who has muscular dystrophy, was unable to wrestle. But he did get to watch his brothers compete and he saw his dad coach.

This will be something extra special, he said.

“We could see our dad? We could watch him wrestle?” Stephen asked. “There are no ifs. Dad has got to do this. That would be so cool.”

Karl still runs, a lot, but he also had to get back into a wrestling room. He bought some equipment for a home gym, and he spends multiple days a week at Merle Crockett’s Southwest Washington Wrestling Club in North Clark County.

“You can run 10 miles a day and still be out of shape on the mat,” Karl said. “The mat is harder. Mat shape is not running shape.”

Karl has been training with high school state champions. He has been getting tips from some of the best coaches in the area. And his sons are coaching him, too.

“I don’t think anybody is working as hard as I am,” he said.

Now, he is just a couple weeks away from the tournament.

“It’s not a mid-life crisis. It’s a bucket list,” Karl said. “It’s so deep in my heart, when I’m running, it brings me to tears.”

He wants to become an ambassador for wrestling.

“It saved me,” he said.

So, too, did all those who believed in him. Not just family and friends. Karl Johnson will have to take some time off from work for the tournament. He said the support from the Battle Ground School District has been 100 percent.

Karl Johnson dedicated himself to getting back in shape a year ago after a family crisis turned into a mental health scare. He started running, eating right, and then got the idea to return to the wrestling mat. That meant getting in even better shape. Photo by Mike Schultz
Karl Johnson dedicated himself to getting back in shape a year ago after a family crisis turned into a mental health scare. He started running, eating right, and then got the idea to return to the wrestling mat. That meant getting in even better shape. Photo by Mike Schultz

Often times, Karl runs during his lunch break at Laurin Middle School. His students have been known to run with him.

“It’s almost a Rocky thing. It’s insane,” Karl said.

He has not wrestled competitively in years. He understands the talent he will be facing in Las Vegas.

“There are some bad hombres,” he said with a smile.

He could go two-and-out. He could win a match or two. Or, as he says, “What if I won?”

Yes, what if he won the whole tournament?

That would quite the underdog story. The thing is, Karl Johnson has already won.

He is a stronger person today than he was a year ago, in every way possible.

Now, he wants to keep on being a champion for his family, his students, and his sport — long after the tournament.

“I’m not scared of winning or losing,” he said. “I’m scared of the day after. You better get a goal again.”

Then run toward that goal with a focus.

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About The Author

Paul Valencia joins ClarkCountyToday.com after more than two decades of newspaper experience. He became the face of high school sports coverage in Clark County during his 17 years at The Columbian. Before moving to Vancouver, Paul worked at Oregon daily newspapers in Pendleton, Roseburg, and Salem. A graduate of David Douglas High School in Portland, Paul enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving three years as a soldier/journalist. He and his wife Jenny recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. They have a son who has a passion for karate and Minecraft. Paul’s hobbies include: Watching the Raiders play football, reading about the Raiders playing football, and waiting to watch and read about the Raiders playing football.

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