Heart of a champion
It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of refinement and smoothing out the rough edges to become a true champion.
Basketball junior Jenna Johnson, a 21-year-old from Salem, has journeyed through the cycle of life’s biggest challenges and yet most rewarding success in the game of basketball the last few years of her career.
Johnson was born in a sports fanatic family. She is one of seven kids and all of them, including parents, played some type of sport, with the exception of one sister. Her dad played football, baseball and softball in high school and her mom played basketball. This, according to Jenna, has ingrained in her the love for sports, especially basketball. She used to go to her brother’s basketball games even before elementary school and go off to the courts that were not in use and shoot away. She played basketball and volleyball in high school, but basketball won her heart.
She was discovered by UVU women’s basketball Coach Cathy Nixon as she went to camps while in high school.
“You know, when I think of Jenna I think more of potential,” Nixon mentioned. “We saw her at camp a lot and noticed that she had a knack of putting the ball in the basket and sometimes players are that good, and she just had that touch, so we felt like she was someone we wanted to invest in, that she had a future.”
According to Nixon, she has not been a disappointment as she was one of the top scorers last season, playing 31 out of 32 games and scoring over 20 points in six games.
With an incredible breakout season last year, Johnson came out on top of her game as she drove her team to winning the Great West Conference championship. Nixon, reflecting back, said how she just knew that Johnson could do it even when Johnson’s skepticism kept her from doing it sooner.
“She was able to be the kind of player that I thought she could be. I know her dad believed that she could be that and I am not sure if Jenna really knew that she could, but as she started to feel success and get rewarded for her hard work, it was great to see that just catch on fire.”
The life of an athlete is not easy, especially in college, where they have to juggle sports and academics. Johnson has learned a skill that has kept her sane throughout this process. She takes one step at a time.
“You just have to prioritize things, so when I come to practice, I just leave my homework at home and don’t think about it and then, once I’m done with practice, I can focus on that,” Johnson said.
Some athletes have superstitions and Johnson is no different. One of her biggest fears is that if she doesn’t do her routine the right way before a game, something bad might happen, like maybe lose the game, so she has to put on her right ankle brace first, followed by the right shoe, then the left ankle brace with the left shoe last. She laughs, but quickly turns serious commenting that it is a big deal.
Friends are a great asset, particularly when those friends are your teammates. Johnson has earned the respect, admiration and love of her teammates. Junior teammate Erika Newbold has been playing with Johnson for the last two years and describes her as a great player and friend.
“Jenna is awesome. She is a playmaker; you can always count on her,” Newbold said. “She has stepped it up and she’s always being an example to other girls, giving them advice. She’s just a solid person all around.”
Sophomore teammate Kaycee Mansfield also agrees. “Jenna is a funny, energetic girl who’s really good at basketball, but she’s a great person as well. I love to be around her, she’s hilarious,” Mansfield said. “She’s a great leader by example; she just sets the tone in practices, especially. She knows what to do and she helps everyone else to know what to do.” Mansfield also says that although Johnson might seem shy at first, she is the instigator and loves to have fun.
According to Nixon, one of Johnson’s many gifts and skills is the stamina she has to get up every time she falls without any complain or excuses. Johnson has had two knee surgeries. One was back in high school when she tore her ACL and the other was last summer on the same knee; however, Nixon is not concerned at all. On the contrary, she is excited to see what she has to show this season.
“I think that in many ways, athletes that go through that come back better because they are better here and better here (pointing to her head and heart). The knee is going to be strong and her heart and mind are going to be even stronger because of it, so I’m just excited to see how good she’s going to be this year,” Nixon said. “I’m confident that she will be a major player for us this year.”
All athletes have the power to entertain and the magic to turn a dull workday into a thrilling, exhilarating night for the audience. However, few are those who can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary and make a game full of beauty, drama and, above all, passion and dedication. That is the difference between a great athlete and an athlete with a heart of a champion. That is what Johnson is eager to show her fans again this season and she invites all to come and experience it for themselves.
“I love when fans come; we definitely need them, so come to our games and cheer us all this season,” Johnson said.