BEYOND THE BEAM

October 16, 2013, published in the Orange County Register
http://www.ocregister.com/articles/johnston-530947-one-arm.html

Carol Johnston didn’t see herself the way others saw her. Born without a right arm below her elbow, Johnston fell in love with gymnastics and didn’t think twice about competing.

She had done everything else up to that point, learning how to tie her shoes, braid her hair, put on clothes, run, eat. Having one arm was normal – she didn’t know anything else.

“Carol was more concerned about being 4-foot-10 than she was about having one arm,” said Johnston’s former Cal State Fullerton teammate and roommate, Julie Bowse.

Reporters from around the country would line up at Cal State Fullerton meets from 1977 to 1980 to catch a glimpse of her. She was even the subject of a Disney movie, “Lefty,” in 1980.

To the outside world, she was ‘Carol the one-armed-gymnast.’

But to those who knew her best, she was just Carol. Another member of the team. A college student. A 19-year-old who loved double-stuffed Oreos.

Johnston wanted to be known for being a great gymnast, not for being different.

But she was different, and she inspired countless young girls and women with her athletic success.

The two-time All-American on balance beam and floor exercise was a conference champion, a national championship runner-up and a key member of the Fullerton squad that became one of the most dominant gymnastics teams in the country.

Johnston, now 55, was inducted into the Cal State Fullerton Athletics Hall of Fame at a ceremony on Friday.

The woman who spent her life overcoming odds is now facing something beyond human control. A year and a half ago, Johnston was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

She struggles to start and finish sentences, and her memory is declining. But like living with one arm, she is once again trying to live as normal a life as possible with the same spirit that captivated all who watched her compete.

“We want to own the disease instead of letting it own us,” said her husband, Scott D. Koniar. “It’s hard to draw inspiration from something like this, but Carol is the same wonderful person that I met, loved and married. Her spirit is so ingrained in her that it has not changed.”

***

Fullerton gymnastics head coach Lynn Rogers was invited to conduct a gymnastics workshop in Canada in 1976. That’s where he first saw Johnston, a Calgary native.

Rogers was impressed that Johnston, who had started out as a figure skater, had picked up gymnastics just a few years earlier. She seemed to have natural talent for her new sport.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Rogers said. “It blew me away. We had to get her to come to Fullerton.”

Johnston was named two-time All-American by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women on the balance beam and floor exercise in 1978 for Fullerton. She was a Western Collegiate Athletic Association champion on beam her freshman year in 1977 and was the runner-up in the national meet in both beam and floor in 1978.

She helped Fullerton compile an astounding 45-0 record in team meets from 1977 to 1980 and win the 1979 AIAW National Championship.

“It was so incredible what she was able to do, that we all took it for granted that she only had one arm,” Rogers said. “You almost forgot about it.”

Despite the attention surrounding Johnston, Rogers hoped she would be valued for her accomplishments on their own merit, rather than always in relation to her arm. She felt the same, according to Rogers.

“It wasn’t that Carol wanted to prove that people with one arm could do it, it was that she was tired of people making her ‘Carol the one-armed gymnast.’ What she wanted to prove was that she was good. Forget the one arm thing. When she’s out there, she’s just plain good – period.”

Yet by succeeding with one arm, she was able to inspire many. She often spoke to young kids, and even flew across the country to visit a boy who lost his arm in a tractor accident on a farm.

However, while having only one arm couldn’t stop her from competing successfully in gymnastics, a sport-related injury did.

Johnston was determined to win a national title in 1979. Yet while warming up on the uneven bars before a meet, she fell, tearing multiple ligaments in her knee.

She worked hard to recover, and finally became healthy enough to compete by the start of the 1980 season. Yet she ended up reinjuring the same knee. Devastated, she was forced to retire from the sport.

After receiving her Master’s of Science in Physical Education from Fullerton in 1988, she went on to have a successful career in human resources, handling employee benefits and personnel management at several private-sector companies.

Questions still surface about what Johnston could have accomplished in the gymnastics world had it not been for her knee injury.

“I think to this day that remains a big hole in her heart,” Rogers said.

It wouldn’t be the last piece of adversity thrown her way.

***

For nearly 10 minutes, Scott Koniar had been talking over the phone about his wife’s career for this story. Then he asked for one favor.

“You know what, I want Carol to be a part of this,” he said. “I can put her on speaker. She should be a part of this conversation.”

The two have faced her Alzheimer’s unflinchingly. Since Johnston was diagnosed, Koniar has made an effort to include her in as many conversations as possible.

When talking to her, he rephrases his sentences for a few minutes, and he does so without a trace of sadness or frustration despite only receiving a few words back from Johnston.

Working from home to be with her, Koniar reminds her that she is still who she is, that they are still who they are.

“It’s been tough for us as a couple to come to terms with the fact that this is our reality. It’s very difficult to talk about it, but every time we do we get a little bit stronger,” he said.

Bowse, Johnston’s former teammate who is now associate athletics director and senior woman administrator at Fullerton, has remained close with Johnston.

“It’s really hard to watch the decline and how fast it’s going,” said Bowse. “But Carol has such a good attitude. We laugh about it, calling it charades. Basically we’re playing ‘What is Carol thinking?’ It’s a release for all of us.”

At some point every athlete has to stop playing a sport, whether because of an injury, one’s own decision or just plain old age. All that’s left are the memories made along the way.

Rogers and Bowse took Johnston to the NCAA Gymnastics Championships at UCLA this past April.

“She would look at the balance beam and say, ‘I used to do that!’” Rogers said. “She would just light up. She wasn’t able to remember what she ordered at the restaurant, but she could remember how much fun she had competing with her teammates in the ‘70s.”

There may come a time when she won’t be able to identify with the beam, when she may forget that she was a gymnast who defied odds. But those who watched her compete, and those later generations who were inspired by her story, won’t forget.

“Carol helped so many people,” Rogers said. “There were so many parents that brought their kids to watch her compete, and those kids could see that you can be awesome no matter what it is that you have. That has got to be more powerful than what she has now.”

Cal State Fullerton dismantled its gymnastics program in 2011, citing budget constraints.

 

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About Mirin Fader

Mirin Fader is a sports writer living in Los Angeles. She can be reached on Twitter @MirinFader.

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