Her time of 1:50.15, less than a second from the bronze and just one-and-a-half seconds behind winner Katalin Kovacs of Hungary, is tantalizingly close to a shot at becoming the first U.S. paddler to win an Olympic medal in sprint since the great Greg Barton in 1992.
“In 2004 it was about being on the team and enjoying the experience. This year it’s more business and my training is specifically geared towards the races that I hope to compete in at the Olympic Games,“ said Johnson. “The 2004 Games gave me the opportunity to see where I need to be and how hard I need to train.”
As a child, Johnson, now 23, dreamed of being an Olympian - first during her 11 years as a gymnast. But it was not until she was introduced to paddling by Olympian Chris Barlow through the San Diego Junior Lifeguard program that those dreams began to take shape.
“For me, balancing kayaks was a different kind of challenge – different than anything that I have done before,” said Johnson who began training with the San Diego Canoe Kayak Team in 1997. “I really had to work for it.”
After mastering the fundamentals of the sport, Johnson won two silvers and a gold at the 1998 U.S. National Championships – her first major national competition. “That was really cool and got everything started,” said Johnson. But it was the following year when she realized that this was going to be more than recreation.
In 1999, California Olympian Sheila Conover, who had just returned from the Seoul Games -- the second of her three Olympic Games kayak appearances, pushed her to train more than just on the weekends. “Sheila would come to the club and volunteer so that we were paddling more than just on the weekends,” said Johnson, who missed the junior national team that year but qualified for a training camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. “It put me on the radar screen.”
Johnson eventually made the U.S. Junior World Championships Team in 2001, finishing 13th in the K-4W 500 meters. In 2002, she won three golds in the K-1W and two golds in the K-2W setting her table for a shot at the Olympic Games.
Her dreams were realized in 2004 when she won the U.S. Olympic Trials in both the K-4W and K-1W 500-meter events – surprising even herself. “The K-1W was really unexpected,” she said. “If I had the best day I would have expected to be second or third but with only 100 meters to go I realized that I was in front. I was in the right mind frame and everything just came together,” she said. In Athens, just five years after entering her first national race, Johnson brought home 10th overall in the K-1W and K-4W 500-meter events.
Following mixed results in 2005, Johnson again was back on track in 2006, winning three K-1W and two K-2W national titles. She went on to bring home bronze in the K-1W 1,000-meter race at the Poznan and Guangzhou World Cups.
This past summer, along with her success at the World Championships, Johnson closed the season with wins in the K-1W 200 meter event at the Mazda Knockout and bringing home three of five U.S. golds at October’s Oklahoma City Knockout. Earlier, she captured the K-1W 1,000-meter event at World Cup II in Szeged, Hungary.
“The women’s field is closing,” said Johnson. “The whole (K-1W 500 meter) final at worlds last year was within two seconds. It could be anybody’s day in Beijing.”
In sprint kayak, where fractions of seconds count, maintaining good technique and feel for the water will be crucial to Johnson’s success at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials and beyond. Perfecting those details comes from the training hours put in at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. where she both lives and trains.
“The training center is an inspirational environment,” said Johnson who gains strength and motivation from the other training center athletes, while continuing to find time for her undergraduate studies and blowing-off steam at nearby Imperial Beach surfing with her teammates.
“We have an awesome group of people on the team and living at the training center, and a great team dynamic. If I am having an off-day I can walk into the weight room and there is always someone who is working really hard and that gets me going,” she said. “It is motivating to be in an environment where everyone is working towards the same thing.”
Between workouts, Johnson who is a senior at the University of California, San Diego, shifts her attention to a class in writing organic mechanisms. “It’s a difficult class – it’s kicking my butt. But it’s great to have something to focus on other than training,” she conceded. Following Beijing, she hopes to put her degree – and tenacity to work in the forensic sciences, perhaps as a crime scene investigator.However, for the next six months in this fast paced, winner-takes-all sport, it’s all business for Johnson, as she prepares for a chance to compete, and perhaps make history, in her second consecutive Olympic Games.