Sportsmen's Spotlight: Olympian Nancy Johnson

By: Chasiti Kirkland

Her stardust dreams would have turned to dust if Nancy Johnson had listened to doctors who said she'd never shoot again. But she proved them wrong when she accepted the first gold medal of the Millennium Games--a shooting mark nothing short of a miracle.

Few people knew as they watched her wave to the cameras, that nine years earlier, at 17, she was losing the use of her left arm. Johnson dismissed it at first, and diagnosed herself with a pinched nerve. But that didn't explain why she always dropped things or why one side of her body was always numb. Batteries of tests never pinpointed the problem, believed by doctors to be the beginning of multiple sclerosis. Johnson fought back with physical therapy, though, and she's been symptom-free for four years.

The same grit that got her shooting again also won her gold on the final shot of the women's 10-meter rifle competition, the first event of the 2000 Games.

Her road to Olympic redemption wasn't always paved in gold. And it was a road she might have detoured if her father had let her bowhunt with the boys growing up. But she was too high strung, and he didn't figure she'd stick with it. "Let's find something else for you," he insisted, in a way that only fathers can.

Johnson eventually found that "something else" in the headlines of a local newspaper. A story about a junior rifle club just three blocks from her home in Downers Grove, Ill., caught her eye. Two months later, the high school freshman was looking down the barrel of a rifle. She fired five shots that day--five more than she'd shot her entire life.

By her senior year at the University of Kentucky, Johnson made her first Olympic team. "It was a total fluke," she said, "and definitely a flop. I expected to have a piece of humble pie handed to me, and it was."

But winning in Sydney, Australia, two years ago was a dream come true for Johnson, who finished 36th in the 1996 Olympics. "Unbelievable," she said of the experience. "I knew I had a medal, but I didn't know it would be gold."

Her father watched from the sidelines as Johnson won the first U.S. medal in the rifle event since 1984.

"When I took up [shooting], my dad was ready to have a heart attack," she said. "He was just so excited that one of his girls actually took an interest in it."

But there's more to Johnson than bullets and bull's eyes. She grew up camping and is a huge fan of mountain biking. "Being outside was all I ever knew."

Spending eight hours tied to an office chair didn't suit her either, so she got a degree in horticulture. "I never saw myself with an office job. I wanted to be outside, whether it was working in greenhouses, gardens, or whatever.

"When the Turkey Federation asked me to be a Women in the Outdoors spokesperson," she said, "I knew it was an opportunity of a lifetime."

"I'm glad to be a voice that says, `Just come out and try it. Give it a shot. Pick up that fishing pole, that bow, that shotgun. Put that turkey call in your mouth.' Don't let anyone tell you that you can't. Look at me. I have a gold medal. And that goes for disabled sports enthusiasts, as well, because I truly believe that if you're not outside enjoying nature, and the camaraderie of others, then you're missing out."



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