ATHENS — Lauren Johnson’s greatest strength won’t be found in the gym or on any stats sheet.
“My mom is straight-up my secret weapon; she is my super hero,” Johnson said. “Growing up with a single mom is hard for anybody, especially with gymnastics, because it’s one of the most expensive sports, like, ever.”
Johnson, a junior walk-on on the Georgia Gym Dogs squad grew up with her mom, Aretha Johnson, working multiple jobs just to keep her in the sport she loved.
Johnson recalls her mom working as a marketing director by day, a childcare provider by night and picking up odd jobs in-between and on the weekends.
“When I moved up to a higher level, I would stay with teammates because my mom was off working,” Johnson said. “She had night shifts, she had day jobs. So, I saw her, but not as much as I wanted to and I missed her a lot. I definitely realized how much she was working. There was one point where I was like, ‘if I need to quit gymnastics, I will because I really don’t want you working that hard.’ But she always pushed me. I was so appreciative.”
Johnson and her mother moved back and forth between Henry County and Gwinnett County, alternating between gyms. Johnson ended her club career at Gwinnett Gymnastics Center, about an hour away from Stegeman Coliseum.
That has been great for her relationship with her mom. She visits as often as she can.
“I think [my mom] realizes that all her hard work has paid off because I’m here,” Johnson said.
Financially-induced sacrifices haven’t been the only challenges in Johnson’s gymnastics career. Injuries and confidence also have impeded her path.
Throughout her freshman year, Johnson said she struggled with the multitude of adjustments, from athletics to academics. But coach Danna Durante said the gymnast kept a good attitude and remained “wide-eyed and taking it all in.”
Johnson’s fortunes took a turn for the better in one event.
While Johnson performed exhibition on vault, bars and beam in several meets, she competed once in the 2014 regular season. That was against No. 13 Arkansas on the vault.
Her second career vault was at the SEC championships — and she won the title.
Johnson’s near-perfect 9.975 on vault came after an injury that took then-sophomore Brittany Rogers out of the lineup. Her teammates, ignoring rules, burst out of the corral to celebrate with her after the landing.
“We didn’t even know the score, we just knew she performed the vault of her life with 30 seconds notice,” Durante said.
Her performance not only boosted her confidence but also inspired a younger gymnast and one of Johnson’s now best friends.
“Before I even committed here, she was one of the first people I saw compete,” sophomore Jasmine Arnold said. “It was actually at SECs that I got to see her vault and I was like ‘oh my gosh, mom. Look at that girl. Look what she just did.’”
And then, just before her sophomore season, the struggle returned. Johnson tore her ACL, ending her season before the first meet.
“I was really excited that year to get out there and win vault again,” Johnson said. “But then I tore my ACL and my priorities changed a little bit.”
Her time on the sidelines gave her a chance to show her caring spirit to her teammates. Especially Arnold.
In the first meet of the 2015 season, Arnold wasn’t in the lineup to compete. Johnson, who had experienced the same thing just a year before, reached out to her to reassure her of her purpose and offer advice as to how to she could still contribute.
“She’s sincere,” Durante said. “She’s completely and totally invested in [those around her] as people and as teammates, and she loves on all of them. Which is why I think it’s so easy for people to invest back in her.”
Just about one year out from the injury, Durante expects that Johnson will be back to full health and ready to compete by the time her junior season begins in January against Michigan.
“You want to be able to conquer different things and have that good attitude about different things, even in the face of struggle and challenges,” Arnold said. “I just look up to her because I know that’s how she is and that’s the kind of person I want to be able to be.”