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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

2008 Olympics: Paddle Perfect

Christine Clark, ’06, with additional reporting from Ioana Patringenaru.


Making it onto an Olympic team is tough enough. Making it twice, puts an athlete’s achievement in a whole different league. And that’s exactly what Carrie Johnson, a biochemistry major at Revelle, has managed to do. Four years ago, the flat-water kayaker competed in Athens coming 10th overall in a series of events, and this summer in Beijing she returned for a second time. Johnson’s achievement is all the more remarkable that she has been battling a chronic medical condition over the past five years.

In 2003, Johnson was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation of the digestive tract. Then she was forced to sit out the kayak season after hurting her shoulder.

“ Being forced to take time off really made me realize how much I wanted to be on the water, ” she says. “It gave me a new outlook on why I wanted to paddle.”

Crohn’s affects well over a million people in the United States alone, and Johnson says that meeting other patients and learning about the disease has given her the strength to cope. After her diagnosis, Johnson started taking medications and her condition stabilized. She worked with her doctor and her coach to modify her training when needed and in 2004, at age 20, she pulled off what at one time had seemed impossible—she qualified for the U.S. Olympic kayaking team as its youngest member.

“ It was an amazing experience, ” Johnson says. “The ultimate test for an athlete.”

In Athens, Johnson came in 10th overall in a series of events. In the following year, her results were mixed but she bounced back in 2006. She took three quarters off school and lived at the ARCO Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista where she prepared for Beijing. She qualified for a spot on her second Olympic team earlier this year.
Johnson was a gymnast until 11 years ago when she broke her arm. She then enrolled in the San Diego Junior Lifeguard Program. There, she met Olympian Chris Barlow, who helped her discover a passion for kayaking. “I fell in love with paddling,” Johnson says. “It is a completely different sport. It is not a judged sport; it is just about who gets to the finish line the fastest.” And she was not long in becoming fast. She won two silvers and a gold at the 1998 U.S. National Championships—her first major national competition. Three years later, in 2001, she enrolled at UCSD.

She says she learned discipline and multitasking during her years on campus. “It is really about managing time,” Johnson says. “I don’t go out a lot on the weekends, but I am really close with my teammates. For us training doubles as your social life.”

In Beijing, Johnson reached the semi-finals of the women’s 500m race. She came in fourth, missing a place in the finals by just .5 seconds. Now 24, she says she will focus on school again in the fall, but is not sure what the future holds. She is interested in forensic science and also enjoys biochemistry.
“ But I am just seeing where it takes me,” she says.
Christine Clark, ’06, and Ioana Patringenaru write for UC San Diego Communications.