EMORY, Va. – Morgan Johnson was six when she discovered the joy of swimming. The setting was the Emory & Henry College pool and the scene was a tad shocking.
“I just jumped in the water one day and swam all the way down to the side,” Johnson said. “I didn’t take any lessons before that. I just did it, and nobody could believe it.”
The Meadowview, Virginia, native has been swimming, training and sacrificing ever since.
This past season as a junior at Old Dominion University, the 5-foot-3 Johnson set a school record in the 100 freestyle with a time of 51.08 at the Conference USA Championships. Johnson was also a member of the 200 and 400 freestyle relay squad which established school records.
“Setting the 100 free record was awesome,” Johnson said. “That was my goal since last year when I missed the mark by about three-tenths.”
The records are all part of an odyssey that began when Johnson accompanied her older brother Trey to workouts with the GEM (Glade Spring-Emory-Meadowview) summer league swim team.
“I guess I have my brother to thank for my swimming background,” Johnson said. “The GEMs team used to compete against other local swim clubs and I would always watch.”
At age eight, Morgan swam in her first meet.
“It was a pretty cool time with the GEMs,” Johnson said. “We even had like little diamonds on the back of our suits.”
Thanks to the no-nonsense teaching of coaches Bob and Meg O’Donnell at the Lifetime Aquatic Swim Organization in Marion, Virginia, Johnson developed into a phenom. She earned all-state honors at Patrick Henry from her freshman through senior year, winning state titles in the 100 and 200 yard freestyle as junior.
Nearly all high-level swimmers refine their skills with a club team.
“And the program that Bob and Meg created was just as elite as any program in Northern Virginia,” Johnson said.
Johnson trained with swimmers from Marion High School and Abingdon. The star from Abingdon was Jared Lovett, who recently capped a four-year run with the Yale University swim team by serving as captain.
“I trained with Morgan for about seven years,” Lovett said. “Morgan was always an incredibly talented swimmer, but she had a drive and determination that outweighed her talent. That's what made and continues to make Morgan so good. Anyone can be born with talent but it takes a truly special and dedicated athlete to do great things with the talent they're given.”
That drive and determination has pushed Johnson through morning workouts and the continuing pain from a rib injury which she occurred after her junior year at PH.
“Morgan worked her tail off and would want to beat you at every practice,” Lovett said. “You have to be willing to work, every single day, to become the best you can be, and you have to possess a true love and respect for the sport. Morgan has all of those qualities. That kind of mindset, the mindset of a Division I collegiate swimmer, transfers over into all aspects of life.”
Coming from a rural area where high school swimming is overshadowed by stick-and-ball sports, Johnson was able to beat the odds through willpower.
“I always thought that I could go to a NCAA Division II or Division III school and be a big fish. I never thought I would get a full-ride scholarship to a Division I school,” Johnson said.
After considering East Carolina University, Johnson opted for Old Dominion in Norfolk, Virginia, where she’s been a regular in the 50 free, 100 free and 200 free.
Johnson has excelled for ODU while dealing with various injuries and juggling a demanding academic workload as a pre-med major.
Three days a week, Johnson’s school day began with a 5 a.m. workout in the pool that was followed by a weightlifting session. After taking classes such as organic chemistry and microbiology, Johnson and her teammates returned to the pool around 1 p.m. for another practice.
“My academic load is insane, but you just have to use good time management,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, I will have to text my coaches and let them know that I have to stay up all night to study for a test. It’s tough.”
Johnson qualifies as tough. The parade of misfortune has included a thumb surgery just a month before the conference meet this past season, the rib injury dating back to high school, and a maddening setback known as Rhabdomyolysis that occurred this year during an athletic competition on the ODU campus.
“I guess I am just an accident waiting to happen,” Johnson said.
Johnson spent three days in the emergency room where she actually self-diagnosed a muscle deterioration condition commonly know in high-intensity fitness circles as Rhabdo.
“The ER doctor told me that I didn’t have it, then I suggested a blood test that confirmed the injury,” said Johnson. “With Rhabdo, an athlete can be sidelined from sports for up to two years. I’m going to spend this summer trying to work back, but it’s going to be a struggle.”
Another episode of the pain game hit Johnson two days ago after she completed a short workout in the pool.
“I was just trying to get my heart rate up, but when I finished my hands were tingling and I couldn’t feel my fingers,” Johnson said.
Then there is the prolonged nightmare of the rib problem.
“The injury is chronic but no doctor really knows what it is,” Johnson said. “I take injections, but it’s a struggle every time I get in the pool. There’s not really a day where it doesn’t affect me in the water. You don’t ever get over the pain, but you learn to push thought it.”
Johnson credits her family for providing the inspiration and determination to reach the NCAA Division I level and then continue the grind.
Trey Johnson competed in football, track and field and football at Patrick Henry before enrolling at East Tennessee where he also competed in track and field. Brian Johnson, Morgan’s father, was a football standout at Patrick Henry who has developed into a swimming devotee. A longtime educator, Brian Johnson now follows the example of his daughter by rising at 5 a.m. for a rigorous swim.
“Dad would take me to meets when I was younger, but he became frustrated when he couldn’t tell me what to do,” Johnson said. “Now, he’s doing the workouts himself and knows all about the sport.”
Morgan Johnson takes pride in the success of her former high school training partners and rivals. In addition to Lovett, Marion’s Brandon Kegley swam four years for Davidson College while two-time state champ Evan Naff from Marion competed for a year at Virginia Tech.
The list of other former Division I swimmers from Southwest Virginia include Virginia High School graduate Amy Tolley Mellinger, who competed in diving at Clemson University.
Johnson has paid a steep price during her swimming adventures, but she has no regrets about the relentless path.
“I would rather get up early in the morning, get my workouts done and feel good about myself than just stay in bed,” she said. “I know all about pain, but I always say that there is never a day off – even in the off-season.
“My senior year is going to be difficult due to my injuries, but I want to break the school 50 freestyle record and lower my record in the 100 freestyle. I’ve had fun with swimming through the years, and I want to go out strong.”