August 15, 2003
As the clock ticked off the final hours of his last day in prison, Jonathan Gill played down the significance of reaching that finish line.
?A lot of people keep asking, ?Are you happy to be getting out??? he said. ?It?s hard to explain, but as great as that is, it isn?t as big as everyone thinks because it?s not my ultimate goal.
?For some guys, just getting out of prison is their goal. My goal is to make the Olympic team, my running goals and other goals after that. So I still have many more dragons to slay.?
Gill, 34, already has battled ? and seemingly conquered ? alcoholism, suicidal impulses and the negativity that can pervade prison life.
Supported by a renowned track coach who never gave up on him, the inmate forged a new attitude in prison and stuck to a tough training regimen. In the last year alone, he logged countless laps at a Salem prison, circling a rock-hard asphalt track that left his feet aching.
Thursday morning, Gill walked out of the Santiam Correctional Institution after finishing his nearly six-year prison term for robbery.
Shortly before 7:30 a.m., Gill recited his inmate identification number one last time as he stood behind a thick metal gate. It opened, and he walked outside into the morning sunshine, toting a bag filled with his possessions. Left behind was his prison-issue garb. He wore jean shorts, running shoes and a Joey Harrington Detroit Lions jersey.
Gill?s coach, Dick Brown of Eugene, and his sister, Robin Gill, greeted him, along with friends. There were handshakes, hugs and a few tears. Then Gill spoke to about a dozen reporters and photographers about his planned transition from convict to Olympic contender.
?It?s a whole new world, a whole new life,? he said.
Gill said he hopes to serve as a role model for people who stumble in life. His advice: ?Just to never give up. It?s never over. I?m going to show the world that.?
Gill, who will remain on post-prison supervision for three years, now will live with his coach in Eugene.
?Originally, I was going to get my own place,? Gill said. ?But it?s going to work out better this way. Since I?m very, very serious about this, the logical step is to be in constant contact with my coach. We?re a team effort.?
Brown, an adjunct professor of exercise physiology at the University of Oregon, envisions Gill making a slow progression from intensive training to competitive racing. He said Gill?s first race will come Sept. 23 in Eugene. ?Just to get him on the line,? Brown said.
By April, he expects Gill to be ready for top-flight competition as he strives to meet the 1,500-meter qualifying time for the Olympic Trials.
Brown, 65, has served as a personal coach to a star-studded roster of athletes, including four-time Olympian Mary Decker Slaney. He thinks Gill has world-class potential and a solid shot at making the U.S. Olympic team.
Gill, who grew up in Michigan, was a physically gifted distance runner in high school. But he blew his potential as he partied his way through several colleges. Heavy drinking later fueled two robberies ? the first in Los Angeles, the second in Eugene.
The latter crime occurred Oct. 4, 1997. In a haze of alcohol, Gill bluffed an employee at Track Town Pizza into giving him $225 by acting as though he had a weapon in his backpack.
Arrested about a week later, Gill tried to run away from police officers while they were walking him ? in handcuffs ? to a patrol car. The cops chased him down, and a jury convicted him of second-degree robbery. Gill received a mandatory 70-month prison term.
Gill began his turnaround after getting into trouble at the Snake River Correctional Institution, in the high desert of Eastern Oregon near the Idaho border. In December 1998, he was among a group of inmates who refused to return to their cells after one inmate showered another with human waste.
For taking part in the protest, Gill got sent to The Hole, inmate slang for disciplinary segregation, for 120 days. Confined to his cell for 23 hours a day, Gill decided to change his ways.
Back in the general prison population, Gill trained with newfound diligence. During one hot spell, he trained seven consecutive days in temperatures that topped 100 degrees.
In May 2002, Gill was transferred to the minimum-security prison in Salem. Nagged by injuries, including a recent achilles tendon strain, he looks forward to using first-rate training facilities at the University of Oregon.
?I can avoid the plethora of injuries I?ve had since I?ve been (in prison),? Gill said. ?I?ll have my coach to watch over me, physical trainers, better nutrition, better sleep ? just better everything.?
Gill said he doesn?t plan to seek employment because of the heavy demands of his training program. His financial support will come from Brown, providing room-and-board, plus family and friends.
?My job is going to be to run as fast as I can,? Gill said. ?I don?t really need that much pocket money. I?m not going out partying or anything. I?ll live pretty mildly in a training microcosm where I?m basically training all day and then coming home and resting and getting ready to do it again the next day.?
In Oregon, former inmates serving terms of post-prison supervision are required to find and maintain full-time employment, approved schooling, or a combination of both, said Michael Washington of the state Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision. However, Gill?s parole officer could waive the requirement, he said.
?That condition is just to make sure the person is making a way to support themselves and not having a lot of down time where they can get back into the criminal conduct that got them in trouble in the first place,? Washington said.
Gill must obtain parole officer permission to travel outside the state, Washington said. Traveling outside the country would have to be approved by the three-member parole board.
Gill brimmed with confidence as he mapped out his strategy to compete in next summer?s Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
?I feel like this is my destiny. I have to do everything it takes to make the team,? he said.
The U.S. Olympic trials are scheduled for July 2004 in Sacramento. That competition will determine who goes to Athens, the following month, on the American track and field team.
To earn his way into the Olympic trials, Gill must run a 1,500 meter qualifying time before May 31, 2004. Gill projected the benchmark time at 3:39. He aims to better that time at the trials.
?My goal is to run under 3:34.9 because this year no one in America has gone under that time,? he said.
If Gill falls short in his Olympic quest, he won?t quit running. He thinks he?s good enough to make money on the professional circuit.
?No matter what happens this year and next in track and field, it?s not my last year of running,? he said. ?This is going to be my job for at least a few years.?
His old nemesis ? alcohol ? doesn?t have a chance of defeating him now, Gill said.
?It?s not an option,? he said. ?I have about the same fear (of alcohol) as me drinking too much bleach. It?s just on the poison list. I?m not going to drink Drano and I?m not going to drink alcohol.?
Speaking to media representatives outside the prison, Gill said he was proud of the transformation he made during his incarceration.
?I?m walking out of here a way better man than I was coming in,? he said.
Inmates watched from windows inside the lockup as Gill walked to his sister?s car. They honored him with a goodbye song and supportive comments. ?Go get ?em Johnny,? one yelled.
As planned, Robin Gill?s car stereo boomed another song as her brother got into the blue Galant. The former convict rode away from the Salem prison listening to Frank Sinatra?s version of ?I did it my way.?