Johnson’s tremendous freshman year sets the table for bigger things

Photo by Jonathan Mailhes

LSU freshman gymnast Kiya Johnson had certainly heard the whispers and was ready to discover whether the hype matched the rhetoric.

The sixth-ranked Tigers had navigated themselves through an injury-plagued regular season, seemingly having the pieces of the puzzle together in time for a postseason run that was to begin March 21 with the Southeastern Conference championships in Duluth, Ga.

Talk of the postseason where LSU had become a dominant program with seven trips to the NCAA championship finals since 2018, had started to boil over with no competitor in the Tigers’ lineup more anxious than Johnson.

However, after the team’s final home meet with then-No. 21 Arizona State was cancelled, the remainder of LSU’s season was halted by the coronavirus pandemic.

An 11-2 record and No. 6 ranking would have to serve as the final barometer for the Tigers, who had qualified for their 17th trip in the past 18 years to the NCAA regionals.

“It was really hard,” Johnson said. “The upperclassman would talk about the postseason and how it was the best part of the season. We had obviously worked the entire season for that and didn’t get to compete in the big meets like the SEC’s and regionals. And for the seniors not to finish their last season like they wanted was really hard.”

With a splashy first season, Johnson, a Dallas native, was certainly primed for what could have been a happy homecoming with the NCAA championships set April 17-18 at the Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Tex.

“It was hard,” Johnson said of the abrupt end of her first season. “I was getting excited to compete on those big stages. I had a lot of family and people from my (Texas Dreams Gymnastics) gym that would have gone to the NCAA championships. There was nothing we could do about it.”

So, after graduating early from Dallas-Coppell High as a 17-year-old to attend LSU, Johnson’s first season in Baton Rouge provided plenty of evidence of her becoming the program’s next great gymnast.

Johnson was one of four LSU gymnasts to earn All-American honors, joining a group that also included seniors Kennedi Edney and Ruby Harold and junior Reagan Campbell.

She earned such distinction on the vault (9.907), floor (9.975) and all-around (39.750).

Moreover, Johnson was chosen the Region I Gymnast of the Year and SEC Freshman of the Year. She finished the season as one of six gymnasts nationally to score 9.95 or higher on the vault, floor exercise and balance beam.

“I just wanted to be able to help my team in any way, shape or form,” Johnson said. “That was my mentality and focus from the beginning of the season. I was coming off a pretty good season of JO (Junior Olympics) and after talking to (LSU co-head) coach Jay (Clark), he said they were going to need all of the freshmen to step up this year because we had lost such a big senior class.”

Johnson wound up with a total of 22 titles on the season – seven on the floor (tied for eighth highest total on school’s record list), six in the all-around, five on the vault, three on balance beam and one on bars. She was one of four gymnasts nationally to record a perfect 10 in multiple events, doing so on the vault and balance beam.

Johnson became LSU’s first freshman with a score of 10 on the vault and third freshman in school history to achieve perfection on the balance beam.

“We went through so much injury-wise,” Johnson said. “Almost everybody had to step up in some way.”

Except for the end, there wasn’t much Johnson would have changed about her freshman season.

Johnson recalled being a one-time Georgia commitment as a 14-year-old before switching that pledge when the Bulldogs had a coaching change. She turned her attention to LSU where she had maintained dialogue with Clark following a previous unofficial visit.

Johnson then issued a commitment to LSU after taking part in the Tigers’ camp the summer before her junior year.

“You’re kind of in your prime when you’re younger in gymnastics,” said Johnson, who won the Junior Olympics all-around competition in 2018-19. “It gets harder as you get older. LSU surpassed my expectations. The atmosphere’s amazing. I met so many awesome people that I can call friends. I’m glad I chose this school because I feel I wouldn’t be able to get that experience anywhere else.”

The life of a competitive gymnast is a year-round, full-tilt commitment which has been commonplace for Johnson the past 12 years.

That breakneck pace that includes meets and hours of training has made the past month of non-activity – coupled with shelter-in-place mandates – a difficult one for Johnson to wrap her head around.

She’s pushed aside her competitive nature with a common sense approach to the tumult that’s gripped the world.

“It was really weird when the season came to an end very fast,” Johnson said. “As athletes we’re always doing something, and it’s been good to spend time with family. I’m trying to keep up my grades and finish off the year good. I’ve gone on runs to get out of the house and get some fresh air, trying to stay fit.

“This is eye-opening for every single person in this entire world. It makes you cherish the little moments even more with your family and friends. I’m going to keep a positive attitude and pray this will all get better soon so that everyone’s lives can go back to normal.”

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