Jennifer Johnson - Interview

By Rahul Acharya | July 03, 2015, 12 a.m. (ET)

Jennifer Johnson (NY, USA)

Jamaican-born Jennifer Johnson's story is one of inspiration. Polio left her confined to a wheel chair from the age of 6. A couple of years later, her life changed when a group of disabled athletes along with Ben Lipton, pioneer of wheelchair sports in the USA, visited Jamaica and conducted clinics in a number of sports including table tennis. A shy and self-conscious teen, Jennifer watched from a distance. Eventually, she became interested in sports and fell in love with table tennis. Inspired by her first coach, Emanuel Hosein, a walking polio quadriplegic who was studying medicine at the University, Jennifer decided to always focus on what she could do rather than on what she couldn't do.

After having played on the Jamaican Paraplegic Team for 13 years, Jennifer migrated to the U.S. in 1981 to join her family who was living here and joined Burke Rehabilitation Hospital's Bullet Team. This was just the beginning ... Jennifer has since won over 100 medals at various national and international tournaments, including 3 golds at the 1988 and 1996 Paralympics, and was inducted into the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012.

I've known Jennifer for two and a half years now. We play at the same club and also train with the same coach, Rawle Alleyne. I hope you enjoy getting to know Jennifer!

Quick facts about Jennifer Johnson:
Highest USATT rating 1500
2015 U.S. Parapan Team Member
U.S. Para Team Member (1984 - 2004, 2006, 2009 - 11, 2013)
2012 USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame Inductee
2007 USA Wheelchair Sports Hall of Fame Inductee
Six-time U.S. Paralympian (1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004)
Jamaican Paraplegic Team (1967 - 1980)

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Six-time U.S. Paralympian and Table Tennis Hall of Fame Inductee Jennifer Johnson
Photo: LatinContent
With Jennifer Johnson at Westchester TTC

1. Please share with us your journey with table tennis. 
My journey started in Jamaica when I joined the team in 1967 and made the trip to Israel the following year to represent Jamaica in Track and Field and Table Tennis. Back then, in order to make the team, you would have to play more than one sport. Sometimes we competed in at least five sports. Table tennis and wheelchair basketball were the two sports that came to me naturally. All the others track, field (shot, javelin and disc), archery, rifle, swimming were hard work for me. When I migrated to the States in 1981, I was all prepared to retire from sports and totally pursue the American dream. But that was not to be. While in Holland, at the 1980 Paralympics, I met two dear friends, Ruth Rosenbaum and the late Tyler Kaus. I told them I was moving to the States the following year and we exchanged phone numbers. Well, no sooner than I got here, I received a call from Ty that he was running a table tennis competition and that he would like me to play for his team. I told him I was retired. He asked me to just play this once and I told him that I had no car. He said, "Can't your brother drive you over to White Plains?" He would not take no for an answer. Well, I went and the next thing, I became a member of the Burke Bullets team that was sponsored by the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, NY. In 1983, I decided that I wanted to be a winner so I retired from all the other sports and put all my effort in being good at table tennis and that paid off with Paralympic, Parapan and many international and national medals and awards. My crowning moment was my induction into the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012. 

2. What equipment do you currently use?
Blade: Spintec Classic
Forehand rubber: Butterfly Tenergy
Backhand rubber: Tibhar DTecs no sponge

3. Where do you currently train and how often?
I play at the Westchester Table Tennis Center in Pleasantville, New York.  I try to play at least three times a week for my mind and fitness. 

4. What are goals with regards to table tennis?
To play for fitness and every now and then, play in a few tournaments, locally and internationally, for as long as I can. I love to help people and would like to get more disabled people playing para table tennis.

5. What do you consider as the proudest moment of your table tennis career?
I have many proudest moments, but my favorite moments were winning two golds and a silver medal in Seoul, Korea at the 1988 Paralympics. My goal was to win three so two out of three wasn't bad at all.

6. Tell us about your most memorable match. 
There are many memorable matches in my career, but my most memorable one was my gold medal in the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, Georgia played at Gwinnet Park. I was playing Christina Pape, World no. 1 from Germany in the Ladies Class 4 Finals. I was not supposed to win. In fact, I had rated myself at this competition to be good for a bronze medal. We were in the third game and she was up 19 -14. At that time we still played 21 points. I figured if I could get my score to 16 -19, I may have a chance. Well, by some fluke she hit a ball to my back hand and it caught the edge of my racket and went way up in the rafters. I didn't even look up because I knew I had lost the point. We were looking at each other getting ready to start the next play and down comes the ball and it knicked the edge of the table on her backhand side. OMG! She cringed and that point changed the whole scheme of the game. I saw her fear and I pressed on with the attitude that I had nothing to lose. I started winning points and was able to deuce the game. We started trading points. When I won the last point, I wasn't sure I had won the game so I put my head down on the table and then slowly raised my head to see the score and there was the umpiring awarding me the point and the score was 23 - 21. I stole that gold medal. Biggest game of my career!

7. Your table tennis career has taken you to so many countries. Do you have any favorites?
Yes, I have visited many countries through my competitions, but my most favorite place was Austria and lately, Costa Rica.

8. Who is your favorite international table tennis player? Why?
Jan-Ove Waldner because he makes table tennis look so simple and easy.

9. Many able bodied people are not able to reach your level of success. What do you attribute that to?
Perseverance and hard work. Set your goals and work towards them. Never give up. 

10. What advice would you want to pass on to others with disabilities regarding involvement with sports?
There is always something you can do to keep active. I chose table tennis because I love the sport. It is very social. I can play with anyone, whether seated or on their feet, and have fun. On a more serious side, being involved in sports has helped me overcome my self-consciousness. It has helped me be more confident in my everyday life. Without sports, I probably would not be interviewing with you today. So I encourage every person with a disability to get out there and do something. It doesn't always have to be about the competition, but about how you feel about yourself.

11. What do you like to do when you are not playing table tennis?
Volunteering with table tennis, helping others, and taking care of my husband who has not been a 100% the last two years. 

12. Anything else that you would like to add?
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my family, friends, coaches, volunteers, the pioneers of disabled sports, my sponsors over the years, the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital, NY, USA Table Tennis, Sir John Holding Rehabilitation Center, Kingston, Jamaica, and all the others who touched my life over the years without whose help I would not be who I am today.

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Jennifer thanks for your time. I am sure your story will inspire others to get active, stay positive, and work towards their goals.