Pan Am medallist hoping to inspire young wrestlers
Having secured two medals representing Jamaica this year, Aaron Johnson is hoping his accomplishment will inspire a new generation of Olympic-styled wrestlers on the island.
Johnson, 24, followed up on a Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games bronze medal last summer with one at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, last month. He also earned another bronze at the Pan American Wrestling Championships earlier this year.
Born in New York to parents from St Andrew, Johnson started out playing American football in high school in Georgia, where he was raised. He took up wrestling to use the training and skills from that sport to make him a better defensive lineman, but he realised that football was not his true calling.
“In high school I realised I didn’t have the height or size to be a college football player, but in wrestling it doesn’t matter what height or size you are because there are many different weight classes,” he told the Jamaica Observer.
This realisation made him take wrestling more seriously and use it to earn a scholarship for college, where he studied information technology. From there he started representing Jamaica in 2021.
“It was interesting when I first visited,” he said. “I saw there wasn’t much there, but I saw that there were people who had a passion for wrestling and were very interested in building the sport on the island.”
Johnson sees 2023 as a year of growth after his performances at major games for Jamaica.
He says the Pan Am Games was the most challenging experience so far because of the level of opponents he has faced.
“Medals are progress but I’m not really satisfied with bronze,” he said. “I’m always chasing the gold medal, but it shows progress getting to different levels.
“But it was a good year. It had a lot of growth and I learned lessons.”
His coach, Ken Burgess, agrees.
“Aaron’s demonstrated at major competitions that he’s capable of winning medals,” he said. “He represented the island and the flag. That’s really important.
“Our goal is to build wrestling in Jamaica. It’s not a lucrative sport but it gives you self-confidence and discipline. Just to work at it is important. Most of the kids and adults on the island will not come from a wrestling background, but to get good at it, they have to work really hard at it. Some of the social aspects of wrestling are there â€“ brotherhood and family. You don’t always get that from sports where you’re trying to win a spot on the team.”
Their long-term plan is to now have more wrestlers representing the country, and Burgess says the Jamaica Wrestling Federation has already been doing developmental work in high schools. However, it is also doing community outreach.
“What happens is that we can get into communities and local gyms where there is mixed martial arts [MMA] because there might be a bit more traction there to start small and then grow.
“The system [in which] I’m involved in Canada, and also in the US, is heavily entrenched in the schools, but there are other opportunities we need to look at for Jamaicans to start the programme. Then, as it builds and gets more popular, we can work with the schools a little bit more.”
Johnson and Burgess say that while most Jamaicans think of professional wrestling, meaning World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and All Elite Wrestling (AEW), when the sport is mentioned, it is not necessarily a bad thing. But they would like to see more education regarding their sport, especially because of how it has served as the foundation for numerous combat fighters. Many of these compete in MMA at the highest level, Ultimate Fighting Championship, and Bellator, and also in WWE and AEW.
While Johnson is considered the most successful athlete now representing Jamaica, there are others who are US and Canada-based looking to compete at the Pan Am Wrestling Championships in February.