Around this time last year, Abby Johnston’s life revolved around boards. The 2008 Upper Arlington High School graduate was either studying for them (Johnston is in her third year of medical school at Duke University) or she was diving off of them.
After earning a silver medal in 3-meter synchronized diving with Kelci Bryant in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Johnston placed 12th in the 3-meter springboard diving competition at the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro in August.
“The hardest part was balancing two separate worlds,” Johnston said. “It was hard to be fully engaged in medical school when I was away so much of the time (for diving). I was doing enough to get through my classes without getting involved in the other interest groups and whatnot.”
A typical day for Johnston involved getting up at 5 a.m., practicing from 6:15-8 a.m., and then scurrying off to classes until noon. In the afternoon, she’d go through another 90-minute practice; head back to classes and then find a place to study.
Johnston’s schedule reached an apex last fall when she was studying for medical boards. During a six-week span, the diver estimated she was studying at least 12 hours a day and then training three or four hours a day.
“It got me to a breaking point,” Johnston said. “I’d be studying flash cards as I was walking into the pool. I knew it was only going to be a six-week period where things were going to be so intense but I was really fried after that.”
Johnson’s ability to multitask is only superseded by her drive to succeed. Since she was old enough to understand what the Olympics were, she wanted to compete in The Games. However she didn’t dream of doing it as a diver. That was simply her fallback plan.
Johnston was a high-level gymnast until she was 12 and sustained stress fractures in her back.
“I tried to go back to gymnastics but my body just wasn’t holding up,” she said. “It was really hard to give up gymnastics; that was my first love.
“I started going to diving practice with one of my gymnastics friends and I thought this could be a good substitute. It’s a little easier on my body but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take it seriously or not.”
It turned out to be a pretty good fallback career. At Upper Arlington, Johnston captured Division I state titles in the 1-meter springboard in 2005 and 2007 and was state runner-up in 2006. At Duke, she won the 2011 NCAA Championships on 3-meter to become the school’s first NCAA champion in diving.
Yet, despite her success as individual, many inside the sport only saw her as a synchronized diver.
“People sort of pigeonholed me as a synchronized diver,” said Johnston, who was in sixth after the first day of diving at Rio with 333.6 points and then moved into fifth after the semifinals (324.75). “By getting into the finals, I sort of proved to myself I was a good individual diver all along.”
The final day of the competition started out well for Johnston, who scored 127.5 on her first two dives but struggled with a forward 3 ½ somersault. Johnston finished 12th with 302.85 behind champion Shi Tingmao of China (406.05).
Johnston prefers to think about everything that went well in Rio rather than dwell on the one dive that didn’t go her way.
“There was only one dive that I didn’t do well. Unfortunately that was in the finals,” Johnston said. “To do 14 out of 15 dives well over three days is pretty impressive in my book.
“It’s the nature of the sport. One small motion, not putting your head down at the right moment, can turn into a catastrophic mistake. I can’t really pinpoint what went wrong.”
Having gone through the Olympics four years ago helped Johnston participate in Rio with a laser-like focus. She said she had this “eerie calm” through the competition.
“If I were doing synchronized diving again, I would’ve felt more pressure to prove myself again,” Johnston said. “This time I was just out there to compete for myself.”
There were some things this time around that the London Games didn’t prepare Johnston for. For example, midway through the diving competition, the diving pool turned a guacamole-colored green. Johnston took her picture by the pool and tweeted out “If I turn the color of Shrek, will you still be my friend?”
“Rio was an incredible host and they ended up pulling off a pretty incredible Olympic Games but there were some issues,” Johnston with a laugh. “We’d show up and say ‘the water is still green.’ And they’d go ‘We’re fixing it. We’re fixing it. There wasn’t this whole sense of urgency. In a way, it was kind of refreshing to be down there. It was a more laid back atmosphere.”
Johnston was convinced that Rio was going to be her finale but recently, she began rethinking retirement. Johnston learned that the USA Winter National Diving Championships on Dec. 15-21 and the AT&T USA National Diving Championships on July 30-Aug. 13 are going to be held at the McCorkle Aquatic Center at Ohio State and a thought of being able to dive one last time in her hometown makes her consider returning to the sport.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Johnston said. “That definitely peaks my interest in wanting to compete again.”