Iowa State freshman Paniro Johnson (photo courtesy of Iowa State athletics)
For Paniro Johnson, running WAS wrestling.
Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser hammered that into his freshman 149-pounder's head the moment he stepped onto the Cyclones' campus last year, as he labored through a 1 1/2-mile run and said he could barely even finish it. Johnson thought he could run when he got to Ames, but hadn't yet conditioned himself to take pride in doing it.
Johnson did a lot of things right during his standout career at Erie Cathedral Prep in Pennsylvania, but it became clear to Dresser from Day 1 that Johnson had work to do on the finer points of the sport. Competition had always brought out the best in Johnson, whose personality is as vibrant as his neutral game, but he needed more than that to be successful here.
Nothing better symbolized Johnson's untapped potential than all that heavy breathing on his early runs as a Cyclone. But if he could learn to improve in that area, to find consistency and compete harder off the mat, Dresser knew Johnson's future was as bright as any wrestler on Iowa State's roster.
"We do a lot of runs here just because I think running is hard," Dresser said. "And I think running builds character. It builds toughness. I think it's gas tank. It's toughness. It's competitiveness. It's pride. It's everything, just competing. And it took us a while to get him to compete on the track, in the weight room, to compete everywhere, and he's doing that now.
"I told him, 'As your run times get better, your wrestling is going to get better. You watch.' He's starting to see some of those results now."
Johnson wasted no time delivering one of the biggest results of opening weekend in No. 14 Iowa State's 26-6 win over No. 12 Wisconsin at the Battle in River City.
Ranked No. 24 at 149 pounds, Johnson blitzed No. 2 Austin Gomez for a 9-4 decision to cap a run of four straight ranked wins for the Cyclones.
Johnson ended the match on top of a face-down Gomez after stymying his last gasp at a big move. He stood up at the buzzer, gestured to the Cyclones bench, and pounded his chest. It was a good moment for Johnson and he enjoyed it, but he wasn't surprised or satisfied by something he expected to do.
Iowa State freshman Paniro Johnson against Austin Gomez (photo courtesy of Iowa State athletics)
"I was just thinking the whole time like this is just one match," he said. "I'm trying to do a lot more than this. That was cool and all, but that's not something I'm going to be bragging about, like I beat the No. 2 guy. I want to be the No. 1 guy and I should be beating the No. 2 guy. I'm just going to keep moving forward and keep working hard. The mission is not accomplished yet."
The mission for Johnson is huge, and beating the No. 2 guy in America is just one step on his path toward it. He is thinking big, and he is coming to terms with the many, many areas left to improve before he can reach his goals. The running, lifting and weight cuts are all parts of it, but Johnson is also feeling his way through pacing himself better, upping his hand-fight game and continuing to push himself to improve on bottom.
But Johnson accepts all of those challenges and knows that more will arise along the way. In fact, he was fueled by one of those areas of improvement to even secure a spot in the Iowa State lineup. He beat teammate and fellow Pennsylvania native Cam Robinson in a tight wrestle-off when he chose to confront Robinson's biggest strength.
"He's really good," Johnson said. "I feel like if he was anywhere else, he'd be the starter and a national qualifier, at least. His best position is top and we were in a wrestle-off and it was close. I chose down just to prove to myself that I'm getting better."
Maybe beating Gomez was a little more proof about how much better Johnson has gotten. But above all else, Johnson sees the bigger picture better now than he did while he was grayshirting last season. That should allow him to enjoy the fruits of his labor while still realizing how much - or how little - an early ranked win means for what he still hopes to achieve.
And now, Johnson will be pushing to get better as more of a household name and less of a national secret. Opponents will come for him with their best energy and effort, which will really put his newfound conditioning and consistency to the test.
Dresser put all of that into perspective when Johnson walked off the mat after beating Gomez.
"I said, 'Imagine if this was the NCAA tournament and you have this kind of result,'" Dresser said. "This is a lot of fun, but this, really at the end of the day, is just one weekend. And so now next week, somebody's going to come out there and you're not a secret or surprise anymore.
"I think everybody that follows wrestling closely saw him compete this spring and summer a little bit and saw some flashes of what we saw Saturday, but the cat's out of the bag that Paniro Johnson's pretty good. So I said everybody's gonna want your head now, so you have to train with that mentality."
Johnson plans to accept that challenge, too.
He had to walk before he could run at Iowa State, but now Johnson has no plans of slowing down.
"I'm planning on taking out more guys ranked ahead of me or even right behind me who think I shouldn't be ahead of them," he said. "I'm going hard every time. No matter if you're not ranked or ranked No. 1, you'll get the same treatment from me."