‘Life is short, eat dessert first’ — Miamisburg track athletes remember beloved coach

HUBER HEIGHTS — When Lauren Zanotelli crossed the finish line in first place in the 3,200-meter race this past Friday at the Division I regional meet, she sat on the track to rest, catch her breath and soak in the thrill of an unexpected victory.

And think about a person so many were thinking about that day: Melvin Johnson.

“I’m doing this for him,” the Miamisburg junior said almost breathless right after the race.

Johnson was the Vikings’ head track coach since 2004. He died four days before the meet at the age of 60 after a three-year battle with cancer. Five weeks before the meet, he was still coaching.

“He would have been jumping up and down and came over and gave me a big hug,” said Jeremy Wysocki about Zanotelli’s victory. Wysocki coaches distance runners and has been running the team since Johnson’s cancer put him in the hospital then kept him at home.

The days leading up to the region meet were difficult for the team, coaches and school. They competed with wristbands —MJ Viking Strong — that most everyone at school has been wearing for the past month. The athletes used blue markers to draw ribbons on their arms and shoulders. Some, like Zanotelli, wrote #4melvin on one of their arms.

“Given everything that’s been going on you can never totally tell how people are handling it,” Wysocki said. “But from my perspective, we’re navigating things well — as well as we can.”

On the track, the Vikings did well. Zanotelli didn’t expect to place in the top four and qualify for state. Then she broke her personal record by 22 seconds and enters state this Saturday at Ohio State with the eighth-best time.

“We knew that she had a lot of room for improvement,” Wysocki said. “Winning was not necessarily on my radar. As a coach, you tell them there’s not a huge difference between first and fourth at this point because the goal is to qualify to next week. But to have somebody win feels pretty good.”

Junior Innocent Ntwali, like Zanotelli, had qualified for the 1,600 and 3,200. But both of them chose to run only the 3,200. Ntwali, who made a big jump in time to place fifth at the state cross country meet, was only two seconds off his PR and finished second. He is ranked No. 20 going into state.

“He always wanted me to come out here and give it my all,” Ntwali said of Johnson. “Knowing that I gave it my all, I know that he’d be proud of me, especially moving on to the state tournament. He always stressed to us let’s work hard so we can get to the big meet. I can tell that he’s really proud of us, really proud of me. And I feel happy about that.”

Also competing for the Vikings at state are senior Aaron Schwieterman in the 1,600 and the boys 4x800 relay of Ntwali, Schwieterman, and sophomores Allen Cardenas and Kasem Kaheal.

Johnson was also a mentor to coaches. Wysocki, the Vikings’ cross country coach, came from Springboro to teach at Miamisburg 10 years ago and Johnson was adamant that he coach.

“He’s obviously been a huge mentor,” Wysocki said. “It’s true and it’s honest that he’s been a father figure to me over the last 10 years. Not only a mentor in coaching but as a dad and as a teacher and in our personal lives.”

Wayne coach Mike Fernandez told the coaches Wednesday at the first day of the meet about Johnson’s death. Many hadn’t heard and he said they were looks of shock and sadness. Fernandez also got permission from Wysocki to honor Johnson right before the running events began. The entire Miamisburg team gathered at the finish line, Johnson’s picture was put on the video board and there was a moment of silence.

“He was just a genuine man, caring man,” Fernandez said. “I don’t know of anyone that didn’t like him. Everyone had that respect for him. That’s why it was tough. It was tough for me. It was tough for all the coaches to hear that news. We lost a big one. We lost a good guy.”

Miamisburg High School will hold a “Celebration of Life” to honor Johnson at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the school’s commons. Many will give testimony to what Johnson meant to their lives. The evening will conclude with a ceremonial lap around the track.

Zanotelli will remember Johnson for much, but one thing stands out.

“Have fun,” she said. “On his emails it used to say at the end: ‘Life is short, eat dessert first.’ I live by that now.”

About the Author