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Balancing Books and the Beam

Balancing Books and the BeamMaryland gymnast prioritizes by putting academics first.
By Eleanor Lee Yates

When Carlla Johnson was very young, her parents enrolled her in a variety of classes. She took ballet, piano and gymnastics, among other things. But within a few years it was evident that Johnson, known as Kit, had a real talent and love for gymnastics. Other extracurricular activities fell by the wayside as the Richmond, Va., native concentrated on gymnastic vault and beam routines. Eventually her focus, discipline and talent propelled her at age 16 to Virginia’s state gymnastic championship.
Now her athletic accomplishments, along with her 3.92 academic average at the University of Maryland at College Park, have earned Johnson the 2002 Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar of the Year Award.
“This really means a lot,” says the 22-year-old senior. “The Arthur Ashe Tennis Center is a few miles from where I grew up. I know all about him.”
Indeed, Johnson embodies many of Ashe’s characteristics: extraordinary self-discipline, love of her sport and a zest for competition.
“I always wanted to do gymnastics. My parents supported me but did not push me,” Johnson recalls.
There was only one time, just before middle school, that she ever considered quitting gymnastics.
“I was around 11 and was missing birthday parties. Parties are very important at that age. But I felt if I quit I’d be sacrificing a gift,” she says.
A number of top universities wooed Johnson during her senior year in high school. She chose the University of Maryland for its highly ranked gymnastic program and its academic reputation. Bob Nelligan, women’s gymnastic coach, recruited Johnson. He says it is often a struggle to satisfy admissions office demands for good SATs and GPAs and also get the top athletes.
“Kit happened to be the whole package,” he says. Nelligan says Johnson is extremely motivated in both gymnastics and in her schoolwork. Johnson racked up NCAA All-American gymnast honors throughout her career at Maryland. She won the Atlantic Coast Conference Honor Roll each year and has been on the Eastern Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) All-Academic team each year.
Many people know gymnastics as the glamorous Olympic sport with lithe athletes making elegant routines look effortless.
“It is really an incredible amount of work,” Nelligan says. “What people don’t recognize about gymnasts is that (by college) they’ve already had a minimum of 10 or 11 years of practice and have competed all over the country. With practice five days a week, their bodies have taken a beating.”
College gymnastics are as close to a year-round sport as any. Meets with other universities are held January through May most weekends, in addition to weekday practices. But practices are also held most weekdays in the fall.
“The first semester at college was a real challenge. Like most freshmen, I didn’t know what to expect,” recalls Johnson, who is a government and political science major. “It was so hard trying to juggle academics and gymnastics. My schedule was full every minute.”
Her survival strategy was remembering priorities: Her college education came first, and gymnastics came second. This helped lessen the “I have to be No. 1 at everything” pressure.
Karen Schiferl, senior associate director of the university’s Academic Support and Career Development office, which helps student-athletes with everything from tutoring to “study desk” on the road, marvels at Johnson’s high standards.
“She is so committed to being a success, so much so that I want to say, ‘calm down, slow down, catch your breath.’ She gets everything done. I can’t imagine her not being successful,” Schiferl says.
Actually the entire University of Maryland women’s gymnastics team excelled in academics, earning the President’s Cup the last two years for the sports team with the highest GPA.
Throughout her college career Johnson has rarely missed a meet. She has tied the school record for the beam with a score of 9.95. She also has been the one her team members count on. At competitions, a team of six gymnasts compete, with five performances counting. If someone falls or bobbles, the pressure is on the last competitor.
“Kit always goes last on the beam and that’s a lot of pressure. But she always does it,” says her teammate Gillian Cote. Cote, also a senior from Virginia, knew Johnson through club gymnastic competitions.
“I went to a summer camp held at her gym. Even though she was my age I looked up to her. She was great on the beam. She did everything with excellent presentation,” Cote says, adding that she is amazed at Johnson’s perseverance and focus.
“She does not get sidetracked,” Cote says.
Asked what she is most proud of, Johnson says that rather than a single accomplishment, she feels good about juggling both academics and gymnastics.
“It’s all about hard work. I’m a strong believer that hard work pays off. But the key is also enjoying what you’re doing,” she says.
She credits her parents, Bradford Johnson, a lawyer, and Deborah Hunt, a real estate agent, with supporting and encouraging her. She says her teammates also have inspired her throughout her college years.
Johnson was a representative to the university’s Student Government Association. She has performed public service work with the gymnastics team, giving gymnastics presentations to schools and churches and making appeals to children to stay away from drugs. Johnson and her teammates also have participated in a number of community fund-raisers. She recently was inducted into a national collegiate honorary society, Omicron Delta Kappa, for student-athletes who have a positive effect in their communities.  
 Johnson admits she has little spare time, but she does enjoy movies and has an interest in interior design.
And despite her busy schedule — Johnson has had a meet every weekend since January — she says she will look back on her college years as happy ones.
“I didn’t go out all the time, but I’ve definitely enjoyed college,” she says.
Unlike some student-athletes, Johnson is winding down her competitive career. It’s a sport for very young women, she says. The taller you are, the harder it is to get through the bars, she says. And by college, there’s so much physical wear and tear. Though she was never seriously injured, she has aches and pains.
After graduating from college this spring, Johnson plans to take a break from books and perhaps work for a nonprofit company for a year. She plans on going to law school the following year.
Johnson’s volunteer work in both the Maryland governor’s office and in a state representative’s office has her considering a career in politics or government. She’d also like to have a family one day.
   But for now, Johnson has some no-nonsense advice to freshmen student-athletes: “Understand that your No. 1 job at college is to get an education,” she says. 

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