Former Olympian gives boot camp a lift
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
The lunchtime boot camp at the Rec Center usually includes people who are fairly fit, but the good ones stand out. And then there’s the Olympian.
Running behind Jackie Johnson on the Grand Canyon University track is like touring Beverly Hills and having those moments where you see a familiar face from the entertainment world and think to yourself, “Isn’t that …?” In this case you notice her graceful and yet powerful gait as she strides ahead of the pack. Surely this is an accomplished athlete – a former college star at the very least.
Yes, she fits that description. Johnson, 29, was a four-time NCAA outdoor champion and three-time indoor champ while competing for Arizona State University. But her biggest athletic accomplishment was something far more significant: She finished second in the heptathlon at the 2008 United States Olympic trials to qualify for the Summer Games in Beijing.
Unfortunately, she strained her left hamstring at the Games and wasn’t able to make it through all seven events of the heptathlon, but more about that later. Her memories of Beijing are so overwhelmingly positive, she gets animated even today just talking about it.
“Beijing was an amazing experience,” she said. “I would do it a hundred times over again. I’ve never been to New York, but this is the New York of China.
“And the USA training facility, which was at a university, was amazing, too. You name it, you had it there. If you needed to have your laundry done, you just put it in a bag and took it downstairs and they would do it for you. There was a computer lab. There was an arcade game room. There was a cafeteria with every kind of food you could want. It even had a McDonald’s.”
Johnson was equally amazed by how children from other countries flocked to her when she wore her USA outfit in public. “Everybody wants to be you,” she said. “It makes you, like, ‘wow.’” But wearing the red, white and blue for the opening ceremonies was extra special even though the athletes had to be at the staging area by 3 p.m. and didn’t leave the stadium until 2 a.m. She took it all in: President George W. Bush’s speech to the U.S. contingent, being in the same group with famous basketball players such as Kobe Bryant, marching into the stadium to the cheers of the crowd.
Then came the competition. The heptathlon, which consists of seven events, is staged over two days, both of them long and grueling. Johnson had been troubled occasionally during her career by problems with her quadriceps and had battled back from left ankle surgery in 2006, but her hamstring hadn’t been much of an issue before she felt it twitching in the first event of the Games, the 100-meter hurdles. Still, she was satisfied with coming in fifth in her heat and also felt OK with finishing 11th in her group in the next event, the high jump.
But things went downhill from there. She said she felt tired when it was time for the third event, the shot put, and burned out after the first half of the final event of the evening, the 200-meter dash, then headed to the trainer’s room to get treatment on her leg. The hamstring was even tighter when she got up in the morning, however, and to make matters worse, it was her takeoff leg for the first event of the second day, the long jump. After one jump, that was it. By this time, her hamstring was swollen, and she was concerned about tearing it completely.
“I just said, ‘I’m done.’ The coaches tried to get me to keep going – they kept saying, ‘Come on, it’s the Olympics’ – but I just kept saying, ‘I’m done, I’m done.’ I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll be back.’ But I still had a good time after that. I spent the rest of the time with my twin brother (Jermyn) and my mom (Beth Knapp) touring around, seeing everything. We had a great time,” she said.
Johnson competed professionally for a year after the Olympics and in 2011 moved to Southern California to begin training for the 2012 Games. But one morning she woke up and realized her heart just wasn’t in it any longer. It was time to move on. So she returned to Phoenix and worked for almost a year at Kaplan University before joining GCU as an academic admissions counselor in December 2012.
To say she’s happy to be here is an understatement.
“GCU was just so open-armed,” she said. “Everything everyone is doing for the school, everything (President/CEO) Brian Mueller is doing for the school, I feel so lucky to be part of it. I can see myself being here a long, long time.”
That benefits the other boot campers, too. It’s not unusual for Johnson to encourage other campers during a workout or lead some of them in extra abdominal exercises afterward. The best athletes make those around them better, and it’s clear that this is someone to emulate.
“I like being in shape,” she said. “I like being competitive. I’m competitive in just about everything I do.”
Spoken like the classic premier athlete. “Isn’t that …?”– indeed.
Contact Rick Vacek at 602.639.8203 or [email protected]