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Olympian Michael Johnson on how he learned to love his 'funny' upright running style

It wasn't always clear that Michael Johnson would be the fastest man in the world. Here's how he embraced his unusual running style.
/ Source: TODAY

He's known as the man with golden shoes, a winner of 13 gold medals between the Olympics and world championships. But it wasn't always clear that Michael Johnson would be the fastest man in the world. Here, Johnson tells TODAY's Natalie Morales in his own words how he discovered his talent — and embraced his unusual upright running style.

I realized I had a talent early on when I was the fastest kid in my class. I'm the youngest of five kids, and they were older and bigger than me, and I could stay away from them when they were chasing me. So I realized I was quick. But growing up here in Dallas, Texas, no one from my neighborhood ever went on to go to be an Olympic athlete. So I didn't realize that that was possible for me.

All of the kids made fun of my running style, even though I was winning. Even though I was faster than them.

People always said, "Did that make you feel bad, that they talked about your running style?" No, it didn't. Because I was always winning the races.

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I remember once, they were talking about how funny I ran, and I was like, "Yeah, I was watching you guys after I crossed the finish line ... and I noticed that you run funny, too. You run kind of slow."

My coach, Clyde Hart at Baylor, was the only coach while I was being recruited that didn't tell me I would need to change my running style. He never even mentioned it through my college career.

And then once I started my professional career and then commentators started to say, you know, "He's got something special. He could be the world record holder if he changes his running style."

Michael Johnson
Before he became the fastest man in the world, Michael Johnson was teased for his straight up-and-down running style. Above, Johnson setting a new world record in the men's 200 meters at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.AP

And when you would ask those people why, their answer was, "Because all of the great sprinters run this way." But I'm the one that was winning the races.

Coach Hart took the approach that you don't change an athlete's style unless there's something that they're doing that is limiting them or something that is counterproductive. And he didn't see anything like that.

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Ultimately, we commissioned some studies to be done on my style so we could understand what I was doing and how it was working for me. And we found my upright style was much more efficient.

For a 400-meter sprinter and 200-meter sprinter, you're able to produce much more power and force into the ground. Force into the ground equals speed.

Michael Johnson
Johnson holds up his gold medal for the men's 400 meter race in Sydney. His running style turned out to be a distinct advantage.AP

So, in fact, you know, it wasn't that my running style was working against me or that I needed to change it. It was actually helping.

Today, Johnson is helping other athletes achieve greatness at the Michael Johnson Performance Center, and producer of a recent documentary, "Survival of the Fastest." With a wife and son, a business he'd always dreamed of and a charity foundation, he says, "Life is good."

Interview was condensed and edited