The Grind

Life on the long road to London

This story featured in the 2012 July issue.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

By Jeff Moag

The first of the day’s three workouts starts at 8 a.m., after a small breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, and typically consists of an hour and a half of hard paddling. Then it’s time for ‘second breakfast,’ and a little downtime before lunch and a second paddling workout. The third training session is done off the water, either lifting weights, running, swimming or spinning on the stationary bike.

This is how U.S. Olympic sprint kayaker Carrie Johnson has spent nearly every day for more than a decade, save Sundays and Wednesday afternoons, which are set aside for rest, and two seasons spent recovering from Crohn’s disease.
Becoming an Olympian is hard work.

Johnson spends most of her time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. The 155-acre center is adjacent to Lower Otay Lake, where some of America’s best paddlers and rowers make endless laps around a mile-long line of buoys. The haze of Tijuana is visible on the horizon, and in the decade that Johnson has been training here, cookie-cutter neighborhoods have boomed and gone bust in the surrounding scrub hills. Life at the center itself hasn’t changed much. It has the feel of a very small college campus, populated by extraordinarily fit people living a Groundhog Day-like routine: two breakfasts, three workouts, sleep, repeat.

Photo: EPA/Roland Weihrauch

“There’s a cafeteria, weight room, physiotherapy. Everything you need,” says Johnson, who is 28 and has a tanned California-girl look. She speaks in a high-pitched voice that seems more suited to the teenaged gymnast she once was than the powerfully muscled sprint kayaker she has become. She first tried kayaking at 13 and loved it. When she broke both her forearms during a tumbling routine later that year, she switched focus full-time to paddling. She was competing internationally by the time she was 18.

She’s been America’s best native-born paddler ever since, despite yearlong bouts with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory intestinal disease with no known cure, in 2003 and 2009. Johnson and her coaches have learned to manage the condition with careful attention to diet, training load and stress.

Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images

Johnson reached the semifinals in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, and has finished as high as fourth at the ICF world championships in 2007. She’s a world-class paddler, but is not likely to win a medal in London. In that way, too, she’s a typical Olympian. There are just three steps on the Olympic podium, and there can be only one champion.

In August, two days after competing in her third Olympic Games, Johnson will fly home to start veterinary school, and the next chapter in her life. She’s looking forward to paddling purely for the joy of it, but doesn’t for one second regret the 10 years of single-minded focus on flatwater sprint paddling. “It’s a sacrifice that you make, but it’s 100 percent worth it when you make the Olympic team.”

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