Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Balancing Books and the Beam

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Balancing Books and the Beam

Article excerpt

When Carlla Johnson was very young, her parents enrolled her in a variety of classes. She took ballet, piano and gymnastics, among other things. But within a few years it was evident that Johnson, known as Kit, had a real talent and love for gymnastics. Other extracurricular activities fell by the wayside as the Richmond, Va., native concentrated on gymnastic vault and beam routines. Eventually her focus, discipline and talent propelled her at age 16 to Virginia's state gymnastic championship.

Now her athletic accomplishments, along with her 3.92 academic average at the University of Maryland at College Park, have earned Johnson the 2002 Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar of the Year Award.

"This really means a lot," says the 22-year-old senior. "The Arthur Ashe Tennis Center is a few miles from where I grew up. I know all about him."

Indeed, Johnson embodies many of Ashe's characteristics: extraordinary self-discipline, love of her sport and a zest for competition.

"I always wanted to do gymnastics. My parents supported me but did not push me," Johnson recalls.

There was only one time, just before middle school, that she ever considered quitting gymnastics.

"I was around 11 and was missing birthday parties. Parties are very important at that age. But I felt if I quit I'd be sacrificing a gift," she says.

A number of top universities wooed Johnson during her senior year in high school. She chose the University of Maryland for its highly ranked gymnastic program and its academic reputation. Bob Nelligan, women's gymnastic coach, recruited Johnson. He says it is often a struggle to satisfy admissions office demands for good SATs and GPAs and also get the top athletes.

"Kit happened to be the whole package," he says. Nelligan says Johnson is extremely motivated in both gymnastics and in her schoolwork. Johnson racked up NCAA All-American gymnast honors throughout her career at Maryland. She won the Atlantic Coast Conference Honor Roll each year and has been on the Eastern Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) All-Academic team each year.

Many people know gymnastics as the glamorous Olympic sport with lithe athletes making elegant routines look effortless.

"It is really an incredible amount of work," Nelligan says. "What people don't recognize about gymnasts is that (by college) they've already had a minimum of 10 or 11 years of practice and have competed all over the country. With practice five days a week, their bodies have taken a beating."

College gymnastics are as close to a year-round sport as any. Meets with other universities are held January through May most weekends, in addition to weekday practices. But practices are also held most weekdays in the fall.

"The first semester at college was a real challenge. Like most freshmen, I didn't know what to expect," recalls Johnson, who is a government and political science major. "It was so hard trying to juggle academics and gymnastics. My schedule was full every minute."

Her survival strategy was remembering priorities: Her college education came first, and gymnastics came second. This helped lessen the "I have to be No. 1 at everything" pressure.

Karen Schiferl, senior associate director of the university's Academic Support and Career Development office, which helps student-athletes with everything from tutoring to "study desk" on the road, marvels at Johnson's high standards.

"She is so committed to being a success, so much so that I want to say, `calm down, slow down, catch your breath. …

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