Neil Johnson

Alumnus, Glencoe District High School
Captain, TEAM CANADA Standing Disabled Volleyball, World Champions 2004

Today, June 28, 2008, Neil is marrying Nicolette Simpson in Glencoe. Here’s a profile we did three years ago on Neil:

Glencoe, September 2005 – Neil Johnson, Class of 2000, son of Angus Johnson and Louise Campbell, is just back from his first year playing professional volleyball in Bonn, Germany for SSF Fortuna Bonn. It was a “ton of fun”, Neil says. This team had just won their way up to professional status when Neil and a Polish player joined the team in September 2004. Unfortunately, the team’s great prospects this season ended after a couple of serious injuries.

Handsome, articulate, smart, and humble, Neil makes quite an impression. Missing one hand since birth raises technical questions. How can you be a volleyball star without your left hand?

Karl Vinke, his coach at Glencoe District High School, explains:

“Neil wore no prosthetic in high school. He just made some adjustments, doing everything with one arm. Digging up a ball, he learned to adjust his shoulder movements to dig it up on the other side.

“Regular players have two hands with triple the surface area that Neil has to work with. In high school, Neil blocked with one hand.

“For passing, we did some team adjustment. He played defense like everyone else. His defense was strong because he has a great right reach. As a hitter, he was unparalleled. He is one of those players who has great control: great vision in the air to know where to hit. He can see the hands and spike the ball through the hole. That is his strength. We’ve had great spikers at G.D.H.S. He is the best spike server we ever had.”

Neil explains that, being born without a left hand, he didn’t really need the prosthetic.

He led the G.D.H.S. team to win the provincial volleyball championship (1999) without a hand but started using a prosthetic after competing at the Paralympics in Australia (2000). The second limb didn’t change his playing that much, he says, but gave him the missing surface area he lacked. Playing able-bodied professional volleyball, he now wears it all the time.

Canada does not have professional volleyball. University volleyball is as high as you can go. Neil played for Mount Royal College (2001 – 2004) and then joined University of Calgary team, adding another year of study to his Bachelor of Communications in Public Relations (2004).

In Europe, volleyball takes a backseat to soccer, but the sport enjoys the status of a popular thriving professional league on par with basketball. Each team has several spots reserved for import players from around the world. After Germany, in June 2005, he returned to Canada to practice with Canada’s national disabled volleyball team, TEAM CANADA.

He has played on this team since Grade 11. TEAM CANADA won back-to-back World Championships in 2002 and 2004. In September 2005, TEAM CANADA will defend their title as the number one ranked team in the world.

After the poor showing at the Athens Olympics, one would think that Canada would be taking a deep interest in this amazing team of global winners. Wrong. Sport Canada, the federal agency that funds our highest caliber athletes has decreased financial support for TEAM CANADA by approximately 70% over the past three years. Training allowances for the individual players have been totally axed.

“Just like the small schools, we’re not high profile,” Neil muses. “We are number one in the world, yet it has been easy for the Canadian government to cut us.” Despite the calibre, reporting by Canada’s sports media is poor. The public doesn’t get the news and so the fan base is small.

“We carry on. The coaches are great. Our manager now has double the workload, and the players must work day-jobs to help finance their every-day lives AND volleyball,” Neil reports without any cynicism or disappointment.

Not only a rarity of global importance, Neil and his TEAM CANADA mates are important diplomats. In July 2005, TEAM CANADA went to Phnom Penh to compete against the best teams in the Asian Zone. This was the first international sporting event to be hosted in Cambodia in forty years. You just know that Neil’s team members were perfect ambassadours even if Canadians don’t care enough to support them financially or pay any attention to their success.

Neil and Team Canada will take on the world’s best in Regina, Canada, September 23 – October 2, 2005.

Neil returns to Europe in the fall for his second year of professional volleyball where he’ll be at the top of his game for some years to come. Eventually, he expects to move into a career in corporate communications after his life in elite sport.

I would not be where I am today if I had gone to a bigger high school.

Neil cannot understand what Thames Valley administrators are thinking when they say that a smaller school can’t deliver the provincial standard of education. Neil believes that he would not be where he is today if he had gone to a bigger high school.

“If I had shown up to volley ball try-outs in Grade nine with 75 other kids, there is a good chance I would not have been selected. Because I played on a high school team, I was identified for the national disabled team. Every year, Karl Vinke ran an off-season club and someone from the national team identified me at that tournament. The national team took me to the university level, and the university experience opened doors to the professional league. If I had attended a big high school, I wonder if I would have even made the junior team.”

Smaller schools offer youth a chance…
… to participate from day one. Kids get a chance to blossom. “You’re not one of the 1500 that just go to class. At large schools, there are fewer positions, so a smaller percentage of students participate. If you want that opportunity at G.D.H.S., you are going to get it. I am very thankful that I had the opportunity.”

Today there is big pressure on young students to pick the right courses, prepare a multi-year educational plan, and chart their post-secondary education and career starting at Grade nine. Neil questions the wisdom of this “railroading”.

“I had no clue what I wanted to do. We mature so much between grades 9 and 12, how can we possibly know what we want to do when we start high school? Universities are looking for well-rounded individuals. In my case, I applied to several competitive programs and was accepted by them all. I selected one that had chosen 35 students out of 500 applicants. I did not have journalism, public relations, or news writing. Universities give special consideration to people who are involved in all areas of life, not just your academics.”

Fondest memory of G.D.H.S. was winning the OFSAA Gold Medal.

Karl Vinke, teacher and coach for 31 years at G.D.H.S., started building volleyball in the 1970s. His goal was to coach G.D.H.S. to a gold medal at the Ontario Federation of Secondary Athletic Association tournament. Team-mate Cam Snider recalls that, over the years, Glencoe teams had come very close (three silver medals, three bronze, and one fourth) so it felt pretty good to be the team that did it for Karl. The team knew how much the win meant to him.
Size doesn’t determine competitiveness and strength.

“We always put pressure on ourselves because we knew there was no reason why G.D.H.S. shouldn’t beat the big schools and most of the time, we did. Winning teams don’t always have the most money, resources and best people. If that was the case, the New York Rangers would always win. It was Calgary who played with passion and determination, a team with far less money and resources. How can people believe that bigger is better when there are so many thousands of business and sports examples that exhibit the opposite?”

G.D.H.S. Teachers Get the Credit
All of the teachers had a big impact on Neil. “I appreciate their dedication and I publicly credit them with my success. The teachers felt strongly about the school and saw the value of small schools as much as the students and parents.

G.D.H.S. Friends for Life
Neil treasures the whole high school experience which was filled with awesome friends who still keep in touch.

“We know each other so well. We all had the opportunity to participate. After graduating, we were well-rounded and ready to go on to the next level: work, university, college. We will likely continue community service the rest of our lives.”

Emotion and passion have tangible results and benefits.
This brings him back to the Thames Valley District School Board. It bothers him that education administrators are discounting ‘emotional’ arguments to closing small schools.

“There’s so much research that shows how emotional therapy can be more beneficial than medical intervention. Emotional wellness is critical to health and well-being. Emotional arguments are valid. They must not be discounted.”

Glencoe District is home sweet home.
“It is so nice to come back. The community-at-large has supported everything I do. It’s refreshing to come back to this area where everyone shows interest in what everyone else is doing. It’s good to know that I can always come back here and feel at home.”
Written with Mary Simpson September 2005


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