One particular athlete to keep an eye on this summer is two-time Olympic kayaker Carrie Johnson, a hometown girl who got her start right here in La Jolla’s backyard.
Throughout her life, the San Diego born-and-bred athlete was always dabbling in sport — from running track and cross country at La Jolla High School to competing as a gymnast for more than a decade — until she found her true calling in sprint kayaking.
“I was introduced to kayaking through the San Diego Junior Lifeguard program in 1997,” she said. “My interest in paddling began as a challenge. The boats are very tippy and take months to learn how to balance.”
After a lot of practice paddling in the waters of Mission Bay at the San Diego Canoe and Kayak Club, Johnson mastered the fundamentals and found her footing in the sport.
“It grew into a passion as I continued to train and compete,” she said. “I have loved challenging myself in training and testing myself in competition.”
In 2001, Johnson began competing internationally at the Junior World Championships, where she got her first taste of the high stakes international realm of competitive kayaking, placing 13th in the K4w 500-meter race.
In the subsequent years, she continued to master the sport and went on to compete in both the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Yet again, Johnson, now 28, has earned herself a spot on the 2012 Olympic canoe/kayak team, where she will represent Team USA in the K1 500-meter and K1 200-meter sprint kayak races.
Until Aug. 4, she will be training in Pusiano, Italy before jetting off to London for the games themselves.
“Right now, almost all of my training is on the water and focused on race preparation. I paddle twice a day. Generally, one workout will be higher intensity and the other will be a lower-level recovery paddle,” she said. “I also lift weights twice a week. Lifting is focused on power and explosiveness.”
With two Olympics under her belt, Johnson is more prepared than ever before for the games and everything that comes with it.
“The Olympics are an exceptionally big competition. It comes with more media attention, regulations, security, etc.,” she said. “Having been to the two previous games, I am prepared to deal with the extra things that could be distractions from the competition.”
Despite her fast track to years of consistent success in the sport, Johnson has a potentially debilitating force to reckon with on a daily basis that can inhibit her ability as an athlete. In 2003, Johnson was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract.
“I had never heard of Crohn’s disease when I was diagnosed, and the unknown was scary,” she said. “My initial reaction was to research the disease. After reading about the worst-case possibilities, it took some time to come to the realization that all I could do was control the things I was able to do, live my life and deal with things as they came along.”
With the constant knowledge of the disease’s potential side effects, Johnson has made preventive measures part of her daily routine.
“Crohn’s affects me to different degrees depending on when it is flared up and when it is in remission. I have found that things like taking my medication and knowing where bathrooms are located have become part of my routine and not things that I consciously think about all the time,” she said.
She and her coaches also modified part of her training routine in order to prevent the disease from getting in the way of an optimal athletic performance.
“Running can be uncomfortable, so I do most of my endurance cross training on the road bike,” she said. “I have also modified my training to lower the overall volume and focus on quality on the water and recovery off the water.”
Despite life’s obstacles, Johnson will forge through with all her might this coming week for her third consecutive Olympic Games. Although this might be her last reign as an Olympic kayaker, Johnson will continue to channel her high energy and competitive spirit for another cause.
“I will be starting the veterinary program at UC Davis on Aug. 13,” she said. “I won’t be able to give both school and training the time and focus they require simultaneously.”
Olympic kayaking for Johnson might soon become a thing of the past, but she will undoubtedly continue to succeed at meeting challenges head-on, achieving what only a small fraction of the world’s population has ever done, and triumphing in anything she sets her mind to as she embarks upon the next phase of her life.
Johnson will compete on Aug. 7, 9, 10 and 11. To help cheer her on, visit her Facebook page at www.face-book.com/carriekayak.