Carrie Johnson spent much of her childhood in La Jolla as a competitive gymnast, but quit the sport when she was 11 after a broken elbow slowed her progress. She eventually found an outlet for all her youthful energy in a local junior lifeguard program, and through that experience, discovered a love of kayaking. Years later, she now realizes just how fateful that turn of events was, as she prepares for her second Olympic Games in flatwater kayaking.
Johnson, a 2002 graduate of La Jolla High School, will compete in the women's 500-meter individual (K-1) flatwater kayaking event at the Beijing Olympics.
"I'm tremendously excited," Johnson said. "This is something I've been looking forward to for a very long time."
Kayaking competition starts Aug. 18 at the Shunyi Rowing-Canoeing Park, which is about an hour away from most of the other Olympic venues in Beijing. Women's heats will be contested on Aug. 19, followed by the semifinals on Aug. 21 and the final on Aug. 23. Much of the competition is scheduled to be covered on NBC or one of its affiliates – check the TV and online listings at NBCOlympics.com for more information.
While the glamour sports like gymnastics, swimming and track have been staples of the Olympic Games seemingly forever, Johnson's sport has a long history in the Games as well. Flatwater sprint kayaking was added to the Olympic lineup as a full medal sport at the 1936 Berlin Games.
There are men's and women's divisions, and athletes can compete as individuals or in boats of two or four paddlers. The races are held at distances of 200, 500 and 1,000 meters, always in fresh water that must be still to avoid presenting a competitive advantage or disadvantage to any team or individual. Similar to swimming, each competitor or team is assigned to a lane, which is separated from the next by a row of buoys.
The single kayak that Johnson will paddle is 16 feet long, just wide enough to sit in, and weighs 26 pounds.
"It takes a long time to figure out the balance and be able to push yourself to go faster while still being able to stay in the boat," Johnson said with a laugh.
Johnson has had plenty of time to get used to it, though. She was a junior lifeguard for five years, and she and her fellow aspiring lifeguards would often play kayak water polo as a fun activity that also developed their skills on the water. One of the instructors was Chris Barlow, a 1992 kayak Olympian who also organized a Saturday morning kayaking group in Mission Bay.
Johnson began attending the sessions, and soon became serious about the sport. She started seriously considering her Olympic aspirations as early as 2000.
Johnson, now 24, competed in her first Olympics at the 2004 Athens Games. There, she paddled in the K-1 and K-4 (four-person) events, and finished 10th in both events. It was her first major international competition, and being one of the youngest competitors on the U.S. team, she said she gained tremendous experience from being there.
"I was kind of thrown into the fire, so it was sort of a learning experience," Johnson said. "We were disappointed in the result, but in retrospect, I am extremely happy I even got to be there. It showed me the level that the top paddlers were at internationally and showed me where I needed to be to be in medal contention. Hopefully I'll be there for this Olympics."
Since competing in Athens, Johnson has improved greatly. In 2006, she won five national titles and won bronze at a World Cup event. Last year, she secured the United States' Olympic berth by finishing fifth at the Worlds, and earlier this year, she secured her spot on her Olympic team with a win at the trials in Oklahoma City.
She has done all this while on medication to battle Crohn's disease, an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation of the digestive tract. The condition kept her out of the water for a time, but she has learned to manage it.
"That was really hard, but being away from the sport showed me just how much I love it."
Johnson and her U.S. Olympic Canoeing/Kayaking teammates were scheduled to leave the country on July 31 and head to Komatsu, Japan for two weeks of training. The team then plans to travel to Beijing on Aug. 14 and spend a few days settling in and training at the event site before the competition starts.
Based on her previous experience, Johnson believes that she is considerably better prepared to achieve her goal of reaching the medal stand in Beijing.
"I've raced at world championships every year since 2004 and have put up some really good results," she said. "I'm feeling really good about the progress I've made and the place I've put myself in for the Games."