Sunday, December 3, 2023

It Takes Two: Johnson Sisters Distance Themselves From the Competition: Vanessa Shares Her Unique Path to World Class Endurance

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The following is a two-part series detailing the rise of the Johnson sisters into elite endurance athletes and health and fitness professionals. Raised in the small town of Grampian, these young women have excelled in their own unique paths. But over the years, their bond continues to grow and sisterhood is an aspect that helps push each of them to continue becoming the best versions of themselves that they can be.

Vanessa Johnson is pictured during an Ironman race in 2019.

SLIPPERY ROCK – Who doesn’t love nostalgia? Whether it’s your favorite food, vacation, or even a smell, nostalgia helps take us back to cherished times in our lives. When Mike and Barb Johnson became parents for the first time in the summer of 1988, you know what one of the top songs was in the United States? ‘It Takes Two’ by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. Maybe this will bring some nostalgia for them, thinking back to welcoming Vanessa into their lives as first-time parents.

(Photos courtesy of Vanessa Johnson)

But like the song says, ‘it takes two to make a thing go right’. With baby sister Rebecca welcomed six years later, the duo has proven to not just their parents, but to everyone, that it has taken two for things to go right. Even if when Vanessa was growing up, Rebecca seemed to be the biggest nuisance on planet Earth, this elite endurance tandem has continued to grow closer over the years and even from opposite sides of the state of Pennsylvania, they push each other to continue being elite athletes and health and fitness professionals.

Vanessa was an all-around athlete growing up. She played in the hay-day of Curwensville Lady Tide softball just before the two state championship victories. But even before that, she played baseball with the boys for as long as she could. She was also a gymnast and later a competitive cheerleader on a state championship cheer squad. Her tumbling and stunting were a huge boost for this team. She even played some volleyball in high school and played a lot of competitive club and intramural volleyball during her days as a Slippery Rock University student. But despite a very well-rounded and solid career, she never truly found her true calling until part-way through college and even beyond.

Health and fitness were always important to her. But the emphasis on it grew and has shaped her even more as she continues her adult life. What started as a challenge to run a 5K during college has now grown into her competing on the national stage in a variety of events. Whether it be half-marathons, marathons, ironman’s, or triathlons, Johnson has done it all and found success in each race type.

“My parents never pushed me into anything growing up,” she explained. “They were always just so supportive and wanted to see me excel. I really got started in running during college because I wanted to run the 5K at (Slippery Rock University) VillageFest and aimed to just finish the race. I did pretty well in the first one, but after that race, I knew I could do better and already started thinking about how I could get under 20 minutes the next year.”

Johnson is shown participating in Project Pedal, a movement through cycling that supports mental health.

From there, being an endurance athlete became a huge part of her identity. Not just running itself, but also increased emphasis on swimming and even cycling as well. But first, it really remained running at the forefront as she got started as a half-marathoner and soon after, a full marathoner. Johnson continued to find her safe space to be running. She continued to fight and train to drop time and get ready for the Nittany Valley Half-Marathon in State College. After finishing in just over two hours, she knew she was capable of more, not just in half-marathons, but in full ones. What motivated her to take the leap to a full marathon was not just her own sense of self-belief, but the grief of her grandfather being diagnosed with and passing away from kidney cancer.

Her way of coping and pushing through this difficult chapter in life was to put the work in and improve in her craft. That’s exactly what she did as she signed up for the Erie Marathon in 2012. On many runs leading up to the big day, so many tears dripped down her face from the grief of losing someone so close to her. But when it came time to embark on her first full marathon on that day in 2012, she was ready and pushed through to the finish line. It was a major hurdle she had overcome, but was also ready for more. She would run nine more marathons over the next few years, but one day, something came over her that was unexpected and changed her trajectory in endurance sports forever.

When she was standing at the starting line of her eighth of 10 marathons, it hit her. She felt there was something else meant for her as an athlete. She had completed these races several times and felt the surrounding competition was more focused on the secondary items associated with endurance sports like winning and collecting sponsorships instead of pushing oneself to the extreme. These thoughts made her start thinking about Ironmans. Again, it took a tipping point and a defining moment in her life to encourage her to take the leap to train for an Ironman.

Johnson and her dogs are shown participating in a Shamrock Run in 2021.

Unfortunately, it was the loss of her grandmother that made her take this leap. That and the itch to travel the country to new and unexplored places that host such extreme races of 140.6 miles between running a full marathon of 26.2 miles, biking 112 miles, and swimming 2.4 miles. It’s truly a baffling event that takes more than half a day to complete for most people who compete at the highest level. Despite the extreme training and desire it takes, Johnson has completed three Ironman races overall. Two in Lake Placid, New York in 2018 and 2019, and a third at Moraine State Park near her home in Butler County.

In the end, half-ironman’s may just be her best race of all, however. She qualified for the United States Championships leading up to the 2020 Summer Olympics and missed out on qualifying for the Olympic Games by just two spots. The craziest part yet is she did not even go into the race thinking about the Olympics. She truly had no clue how close her training was getting her to being an Olympian. But in the years following this race, she’s shifted her training and priority of chasing the Summer Olympics for various reasons. From the time commitment it takes to train, to the loneliness that comes with having to tack on so many miles, and even the commitment it takes away from her work, she’s focused more on half-ironman’s and triathlon competitions going forward.

“Right now, I’m in the best shape of my life,” says Johnson. “I need the balance of biking, lifting, running, and swimming. My recovery takes much less time because of the cross training that I do. Throughout my life, I’ve always been the type of person who will wake up every day and bust my butt to do the things I want in life. I’ve always been very regimented, and it’s helped me continue to be fit and live my life with purpose.”

Rebecca Johnson (left) and Vanessa Johnson connect after the Lake Wilhelm Marathon. Rebecca won this marathon, and it is a moment that duo will always remember as their endurance athlete careers continue.

In her professional career, Johnson serves as the Assistant Director of Aquatics/Risk Management at Slippery Rock University in her full-time role. She also has various other side hustles, including teaching various courses through the American Red Cross, Body Pump, and Silver Sneakers. She also is the club advisor for Slippery Rock University’s triathlon team and works part time at Big Rail Brewing. Prior to her time returning to her alma mater for this role on staff, she spent over a decade with the Clearfield YMCA in a variety of roles. No matter how her career progresses, she will always consider the many people she knows and who work at the Clearfield YMCA family.

“It was rewarding to give back to my home. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work, but the team I was a part of did a lot of great things. We helped turn the corner for the YMCA in a little over a year and brought so many needed changes to our community. Don Herres was such a great mentor to me and I credit so much of my success in my career to him. My time at the YMCA helped me get to where I am now.”

Whether it is her own health and fitness journey or supporting others in theirs, Vanessa Johnson has worked tirelessly to make her impact on the world. Her relentless work ethic has inspired many in her life and will continue to cement her as a great ambassador and employee for Slippery Rock University. The small-town values she took from her upbringing in Grampian continue to serve her well and her passion for competition and fitness paved the way for her younger sister Rebecca to enjoy an impressive journey of her own.

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