Torch Bearers

updated 07/10/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/2000 01:00AM

It's hard to imagine a more enduring Olympic moment than Rafer Johnson's gutty, gold medal triumph in Rome in 1960, when the exhausted decathlete staggered across the finish line of the last event, the 1,500 meters—steps ahead of his best friend, C.K. Yang. But Johnson just may have topped it 24 years later, on a balmy evening when he barely broke a sweat. That memorable July night, Johnson, then 48, trotted up 99 steps inside a jammed Los Angeles Coliseum to ignite the flame signaling the start of the 1984 Summer Games—and lit a fire in the hearts of his two children, Jenny and Josh. "What we got from my father that day," remembers Jenny, 27, "was that it allowed us to dream about the Olympics—that maybe it was a possibility for us."

Today that dream is on the brink of coming true. Jenny and her beach volleyball partner, Annett Buckner-Davis, 26, will earn a ticket to Sydney if they remain one of the top two U.S. teams when final standings are tallied in mid-August. (The pair currently ranks No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 2 in the world.) Jenny could be joined there by brother Josh, 25, a javelin thrower who placed second at the 1997 nationals, if he manages to qualify at the Olympic trials in Sacramento on July 16-17. "Competing in Australia would be extra special since my dad won the silver at the '56 games in Melbourne," says Josh. "And to have my sister there walking in with me during opening ceremonies, with my parents in the stands? It would just be amazing."

No one would be more delighted than his mother and father. Rafer Johnson, who devoted much of his post-Rome efforts to promoting the Special Olympics, and wife Betsy, a former teacher, raised their children with an emphasis on academics and achievement rather than athletics per se. "My father made a point not to decorate his house with his medals and trophies. Everything you see on display is of my brother and myself," says Jenny, sweeping a chiseled arm around her parents' antiques-filled living room in the Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks. "Rafer is very modest," observes Betsy, 57, who first met him when she was 13 (they fell in love a decade later and were married in 1971). "You could walk into our home and not know he was in the Olympics, but you'd know he is a father."

After graduating from the academically rigorous Windward School in West Los Angeles, where Jenny played volleyball and Josh played lacrosse, both went on to their father's alma mater, UCLA. There Jenny, a communications major, starred on the volleyball team and fell in love with UCLA wide receiver Kevin Jordan, whom she married in 1997. Josh, a sociology and African-American studies major, intended to stick with lacrosse—until one day in his freshman year. Walking across campus with his father, the pair bumped into Art Venegas, the UCLA track coach. "Doesn't Josh look like a javelin thrower?" Rafer said, almost in passing. Venegas agreed—and followed up.

"I decided to give it a try," says Josh, who as a child had kept his father's wooden javelin over his bed. By senior year he was the proud owner of a Pac 10 Conference javelin championship. "I'm so impressed by what he's accomplished," says Jenny, who remains her brother's closest confidante. "He has come so much farther than me in a much shorter period of time."

Credit Josh's bulldog tenacity, a work ethic he shares with his sister. "She's so dedicated," says Jenny's husband, Kevin, 27, who after stints with three pro football teams now works as a missionary for Athletes in Action, a college religious group. "The hard part is when she's gone," adds Jordan, who hasn't seen much of his wife lately at their Tarzana condo because of her hectic tournament schedule. "But we look at it as one summer of sacrifice."

While Jenny has been flying to matches around the world, Josh's training keeps him close to home. Very close. "I still eat in dorms—for $5 it's all you can eat," says Josh, who lives in a bungalow in West L.A. and dates Damesha Craig, 21, a UCLA sprinter he met at the track three years ago. (Her father is former football star Roger Craig.) A member of the Reebok Bruin Track Club, which pays for his travel and javelins (at $500 each), Josh also receives financial help from his parents so that he can train full-time. "We're going to get him healthy for the trials," says coach Venegas of Josh, who has been nursing a groin injury. "If he gets healthy, I think he can do well."

Whether that will be enough to make the Olympic team remains to be seen. (To qualify for the Games, Josh would not only have to place in the top three at the trials but would also have to make a toss of at least 269 ft., 20.5 ft. beyond his previous best.) But it's a safe bet he'll have a world-class cheering section. "This is the way I compete now—by supporting and encouraging my kids," says Rafer, who spent a recent weekend watching Josh at a meet in Cerritos, Calif., while Betsy traveled to Mexico to root for Jenny. "And the best thing about it is that I want for them what they want for themselves."

Pam Lambert
Lorenzo Benet in Sherman Oaks

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