While preparing to travel to London to watch the 2012 Paralympic Games this past August, Jennifer Johnson received a letter in the mail from the U.S. Table Tennis Association that she assumed was a fundraising appeal.
“I thought maybe I forgot to send my contribution and I wasn’t going to read it,” she said.
“I was going to save it for later. Then I decided to read it. I had to read it two or three times before I realized what it was saying, and I was very surprised.”
The letter was to inform Johnson of her induction into the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012.
Johnson, a table tennis player who won gold and bronze medals at the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games in addition to two gold medals and a silver medal at the Seoul 1988 Paralympic Games, was inducted into the Hall of Fame Dec. 20 along with Errol Resek, Lan Vuong and Gus Kennedy at an annual banquet at the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino during the 2012 U.S. National Table Tennis Championships.
Johnson chose Sharon Brooks, a friend who is an occupational therapist and classification officer for USA Table Tennis, to introduce her at the banquet.
“When I got the letter that was my automatic pick,” Johnson, who lives in Port Chester, N.Y., said of Brooks. “I thought she knew me pretty well. We’ve been working together on a lot of projects and we pretty much know each other. I figured she would be a good person to introduce me and she felt really honored I asked her to do that for me.
“When I had to go up and address the people it was emotional. I didn’t cry or anything like that but there were so many things to talk about. But I did not have the time so I had to embrace everybody who really touched my life; all the coaches that helped me out.”
Johnson spoke to the audience about winning gold in the Seoul 1988 Paralympic Games after the ball trickled over the net on the final point. She didn’t have time to speak about her experience in the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games.
Whereas Seoul was an exciting Paralympic coming-out party, her Paralympic swan song in Atlanta was just as amazing.
“Atlanta was at the end part of my career,” she said. “I thought I would win bronze but I ended up winning a gold.”
In the gold-medal match against German Christiane Pape, Johnson was two points away from losing when she blocked the ball off the edge of her paddle, sending the ball flying towards the ceiling.
“I didn’t look up because I didn’t know where the ball went,” she recalled. “It came down and nicked the edge of her side. That was the turning point of the game. … I looked at her and it was like her whole personality changed. She got nervous. I don’t know what happened. It broke her.”
After the final point, Johnson put her head down on the table, not knowing if she won or lost, until she heard the official say that she won. She broke down.
“I just lost it,” she said. “Between that and Seoul, (where) I won one of my gold medals on a net ball, those were the two best moments.”
Born in Mandeville, Jamaica, Johnson was diagnosed with polio when she was 5 and has used a wheelchair ever since. She didn’t pick up table tennis until her teens.
“We were introduced to lot of sports; I liked table tennis a lot,” she said. “It’s a sport you don’t have to make a lot of adjustments to play with anyone. You just need a table, a racket and balls and you have a game going. That’s why I like table tennis. You don’t need to do anything different to play.”
The sport also helped her overcome her crippling self-consciousness about having polio. Before she started playing the sport, she said she kept a “low profile” out of fear of having to explain her condition to people.
That all changed when she traveled to Tel Aviv for her first international competition in 1968.
“That’s where I admired all the players there,” she said. “There were people more disabled than me who were just going about it like it was nothing. They were just enjoying the sport and having a good time.”
She competed for the Jamaican Paraplegic team in table tennis and basketball until 1980 — serving as the captain of the Jamaican basketball team that claimed a silver medal at the 1971 Pan American Games held in Jamaica and 1972 Paralympic Games in Heidelberg, Germany — before her family immigrated to the United States when she was in her 30s.
She joined the U.S. Paralympic Table Tennis Team in 1983 (earning two silvers in the 1984 Paralympic Games in the United Kingdom) before becoming a naturalized citizen in 1985.
She is married to husband, Denton, and has a son, Anthony, and two grandchildren, David and Brianna.
These days she remains involved with many boards and table tennis organizations and continues to compete in several able-body domestic tournaments each year along with a few international paraplegic tournaments each year.
“I think I’ve done everything I need to do, I’m just enjoying my fruits now,” she said. “I can’t see myself setting anymore goals as far as table tennis. I enjoy the sport now, if I win an event that’s icing on the cake.
“I don’t think the (Hall of Fame) induction has changed me. If somebody comes up and needs me to do something I’m the same person. I’m happy with my life now. I’m just enjoying myself.”