Black History Month: Catching Up with BJ Johnson

Black History Month: Catching Up with BJ Johnson

By Mike Watkins//Contributor  | Thursday, February 2, 2017

During his swimming career, BJ Johnson expended a great deal of energy with each stroke and kick. 
 
Now, with competitive swimming behind him (although he hasn’t turned in any official paperwork), Johnson, a recent PhD. graduate of Stanford University, is focusing his energy in a different direction: developing a replacement for large diesel engines with a smaller, more efficient and cleaner-burning version that leaves no or less of a carbon footprint. 
 
Essentially, the work he’s doing through his company, ClearFlame Engine, is changing the face and use of energy – or will in the future. He conducted the initial research for the project while earning his doctorate.
 
“I’ve been interested in energy through my undergrad because it’s one of the world’s biggest problems and opportunities,” said Johnson, who is relocating his company to Chicago in March. “I’ve always been good at math and physics, and I wanted to do something productive to better the world with that knowledge.”
 
Looking for an opportunity to capitalize on this, Johnson said he knew he wanted to do something for his PhD. Related to energy consumption and reduction. He originally looked into waste water research as an option before changing to diesel engines. 
 
Through discussions and the expertise of his advisor, Johnson eventually decided to take this educational direction. 
 
“I was really lucky to have him as my advisor because he helped me look in the right areas,” he said. “Petroleum-based fuel is non-renewable, so we really have to find new options as we move away from oil.”
His upcoming move from Palo Alto, Calif., to the Windy City will give him better research space – although he intends to eventually sell the research findings to a company that can develop that research into production. 
 
“This is a two-year program that will allow me to experiment as much as I can because the idea has merit but comes with small and big engineering challenges,” he said. “After those two years, we hope to develop a product that can be licensed to a larger company robust enough to reach the global market.”
 
While he was working on this potentially game-changing technology, Johnson also was continuing to pursue his Olympic swimming dream. 
 
He trained with Tony Batis at Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics and competed this past summer in his third Olympic Trials. 
 
In Omaha, he equaled his result from four years earlier – sixth in the 200 breaststroke – and missed making the team headed to Rio. 
 
Three years earlier at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, Johnson finished second in the 200 breast and earned his only spot on the 2013 World Championship team. 
 
And even though he didn’t perform as well at World Championships – finishing 12th – Johnson said his swimming experience has been positive and reaffirming that he made the right choice to continue training and competing after finishing his successful career at Stanford. 
 
“Believe it or not, training and swimming became much easier for me after completing my college eligibility because I had more freedom in my class structure and fewer team responsibilities while in graduate school,” said Johnson, who started competing full-time later than most swimmers when he was 16. 
 
“I think if I could go back in time, I’d tell myself to get started training more seriously at 10, 11 or 12 instead of so much later. But I do think starting later made me want to keep swimming after college. I still had much to prove to myself and the swimming world.”
 
Being biracial (mom is Caucasian; dad is African-American) in a predominantly white sport, Johnson said he grew up with few other minority role models in the sport. 
 
Because mentors played such a strong role in his educational pursuits, Johnson said he started thinking about his own legacy as a minority swimmer and what that means to him and to young athletes – swimmers and others – who may not have someone who looks like them that they can look to for inspiration. 
 
“I came to Stanford as a “nobody” swimmer, and I’ve been really fortunate to swim with some great coaches who helped me find the best swimmer inside me,” he said. “Being black and Jewish, I want to help young kids looking to find their own best athlete or student inside themselves by being someone they can identify with.
 
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with kids at diversity camps around the Bay area, and I’ve always wanted to impart in them that being black or inner-city doesn’t need to hold them back from pursuing something if they want. I’m proof of that, having come from inner-city Seattle. I didn’t let that hold me back.”
 
But as someone who refuses to let race or religious affiliation label him, Johnson said he continues to be true to himself and very proud of everything he’s accomplished in his life.
 
As someone who didn’t make his college conference championship team, Johnson said he refused to let that stop him from going after what he wanted.
 
“I’m very proud of how far I was able to push myself in the sport, because I always knew I was a better swimmer than that,” said Johnson, who is still swimming when he can and intends to compete in the Maccabiah Games in Israel this summer. “That belief in myself makes me proud that I was able to take an unconventional route in swimming and still have success along that path. 
 
“I’m also proud that I can be an example – someone lucky enough to influence people in the sport, minority and not. I do what I can to make sure people have what they need for them to be successful. Swimming is a hard sport that takes a lot of time, but I’m always excited to share my story because my journey was different from other swimmers, and I want others to know they can also accomplish their goals in whatever ways work best for them.”
 

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