ATHENS, Ga. - In a gymnastics career filled with perfect 10s and national titles, winning NCAA Woman of the Year would seem like a fitting conclusion to Grace Taylor Johnson's competitive life.
But tonight’s announcement banquet in Indianapolis isn’t really a competition in the way the nine finalists are accustomed. The achievements by these graduating athletes have already been attained in just getting recognized for distinguishing themselves in the areas of athletics excellence, academic achievement, and commitment to service and leadership.
But old habits die hard for the former Georgia gymnast.
“The athlete in me always hopes to win,” Johnson said. “But in this situation there’s nothing that I can do to win. I understand that it is more of a celebration of our collective achievements.”
Athletically, the Aiken-raised star’s athletic achievements with the decorated Gym Dogs were well documented. She was a big part of three consecutive NCAA championship teams, earning five All-America honors along the way as well as winning the 2008 NCAA individual beam title.
But Johnson’s efforts were never confined to the gymnastics arena. Academically she was an ace as well, being named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll all four years, earning SEC gymnastics scholar athlete of the year in 2009 and receiving an NCAA postgraduate scholarship in 2010. She graduated in 2010 with a degree in health promotion and is currently working on her master’s degree at UGA in public administration.
In between the athletics and academics, she also found time to volunteer for the local food bank, Special Olympics and a gymnastics-based children’s ministry.
She also volunteers at the Mercy Health Center in Athens. Since her sister Phoebe – a freshman at Clemson – lives with diabetes, Johnson’s outreach at the clinic helped identify a lot of untreated diabetics in the area by promoting simple testing.
Her hectic life is just part of her routine.
“I’d rather be busy than bored,” said Johnson, who former Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan once called “our perfect little ambassador.”
Johnson is transitioning well to the next phase of her life. She got married in July 2010 to former Georgia football player Andrew Johnson, who is attending medical school while she pursues her own two-year program.
“The hardest thing about finishing gymnastics was not really knowing what was next,” Johnson said. “There was always a goal for you at the end of each year to perform well at the championships. It was kind of a difficult time trying to figure out what were my goals now.
“In my graduate program I see the potential to have an impact on the community here in Athens. If and when we ever have to move from here, I’m really developing skills to be active in my community through nonprofit work.”
Gymnastics remains a big part of her life as it has since she was 4. She serves as a graduate assistant for the Gym Dogs and spends 10-12 hours a week helping kids at the Oconee Gymnastics Club. It’s the work with kids that has rejuvenated her enthusiasm for using it as a tool to develop character in children.
“It’s healed places in my heart where maybe I was burned out or over the whole gymnastics scene,” she said. “I kind of get to experience it again and see how fun it is and how much kids love to work hard and grow muscles and overcome obstacles. It’s been a huge blessing in my life the last year.”
So has the opportunity to share this weekend’s festivities in Indianapolis with her family – particularly her mother. Lynn Taylor was diagnosed in December with Stage IV breast cancer after discovering a lump in the lymph nodes under her arm. She’s come through the worst of surgery and chemotherapy.
“Her chances are good,” said Daniel Taylor, Johnson’s father. “She’s a survivor so far.”
Johnson and her mother went to Indianapolis on Friday to participate in the full weekend of events.
“I’m very excited about it,” Johnson said. “We’re going to celebrate together because it’s definitely been a team effort. I’m excited to share this moment with all the people who have helped me get here.”
It’s certainly a proud moment for her family to be so notably honored for being well-rounded.
“She’s worked hard for everything she’s gotten,” said her father. “You think when she’s finished competing everything is over, but this is exciting. They all poured their heart into what they grew up doing.”
Johnson has a chance to become the third Bulldog honored as NCAA Woman of the Year, but the first Gym Dog. No gymnast from any school has ever won the award.
“A lot of the reason I have been nominated has to do with team success,” Johnson said. “So I would love for our team to have a winner of this award.”
Whoever is chosen tonight in Indy, Johnson and her fellow finalists are already proven winners.
“It’s not going to change my goals in life or where I’m going,” she said. “It’s just an honor and an awesome opportunity to say thank you to the people who have helped me accomplish what I have so far.”