‘Not every champion is a prodigy’: Johnson, mom twirl through life together

For Rachel Johnson, the hardest part of twirling isn’t the tricks or skills. It’s the loneliness. From age six to 17, she practically lived in a gym between training with her mother and her coach.

“It was just really lonely,” Johnson said. “I think that as a child, you’re looking to build relationships with your peers and it’s not something that everyone can deal with.”

The sophomore political science and economics double major started dance classes when she was 3-years-old and then transitioned to twirling.

Now, despite choosing USI, which doesn’t have a twirling program, Johnson still picks up her baton. Johnson, a national champion, twirled both her freshman and sophomore year of college during halftime at basketball games.

‘I sucked’

At age five, she marched in parades after she was introduced to parade corp.

“I’ll be honest,” she said. “I sucked.”

At age 6, Johnson began to compete on the local level and a year later, she competed in her first state tournament.

She won every event in her age group at the advanced level.

“That was another thing. I progressed really quickly,” she said. “There wasn’t anything particularly hard when I was young. It was just practicing on my own and knowing that I didn’t have any friends that were going to do it.”

At age 8, her coach told her mom, Tonya Johnson, she was “really good.”

That same year, Johnson competed in her first national competition in Tuscon, Arizona, placing second in each category.

“After I placed second in everything at nationals it was like, ‘OK, we’re going to do this. We’re going to keep doing this for a long time,’” Johnson said.

‘It all starts to fall together’

Two years later, after competing in nationals, Johnson had a short-lived change of heart when she felt she wasn’t performing well anymore.

“You don’t really know what your competition is like until you get (to a competition),” Johnson said. “It’s just a hard battle and a mind game of, ‘Am I going to be the best when I get there?’”

Johnson said she wanted to do everything her friends were doing. She never played T-ball or played recreational soccer.

“I literally lived my life in dance class or at baton practice,” she said, “and baton practice was by myself.”

As Johnson progressed, she moved from working with a local coach once a week to a different coach twice a month. She and her mother would drive two-and-a-half hours to Michigan for a two to three-hour lesson and back.

She called her coach and explained that she didn’t want to twirl anymore.

Tonya said she didn’t want Johnson to quit, but she always told her it was ultimately her decision.

“You can’t make someone do something their heart isn’t in,” Tonya said.

That break lasted about two weeks.

She started practicing again and prepared for nationals the next year.

Johnson spent the summer wearing holes in the bottoms of her Keds as she practiced on concrete. She went through a couple pairs that summer.

She won two events that time.

“Not every champion is a prodigy. Not every champion has everything, the perfect costume or the perfect hair to begin with,” she said. “It all starts to fall together. You do what you can with what you have.”

It all starts to fall together. You do what you can with what you have.”

— Rachel Johnson

‘Whatever she could dream up’

Johnson competed in costumes her mom sewed for her.

“I made almost all of her costumes,” Tonya said. “A lot of it was out of necessity.”

Costumes for twirlers are expensive, Tonya said. It’s possible to spend $900 on one, especially for a freestyle event.

In those events, the performer chooses their own music. Tonya would create an outfit to help Johnson depict her character.

Tonya said the costumes Johnson wore were always second hand or sewn by her, but she thinks in some ways it made her feel special.

“As she got older, she would design (the costumes) and I would make them,” Tonya said. “I could make whatever she could dream up. No one had anything even close.”

‘Surgery would just devastate us’

After the initial nationals wins, Johnson was ready to win again, she said.

But the next year, doctors diagnosed her with scoliosis, a condition where the spine curves sideways.

“(The doctor) had just decided we would do surgery and that was it,” Tonya said. “By this time, I was a single mom and I knew surgery would just devastate us financially.”

Through a friend, Johnson and Tonya looked for a second opinion with the Hadi Shriners.

From that appointment, Johnson found she could go without surgery and learn to manage her aches and pains.

Johnson said there are some things the curve in her spine hinders (but it’s never stopped her from competing.)

‘You can absolutely not drop your baton’

In choosing USI, Johnson chose a school with no twirling program.

“If I wasn’t going to twirl, I didn’t want to be somewhere where twirlers were,” Johnson said.

Despite not having a program, she has still performed for an audience at the university.

“When I twirl for my peers, it’s about entertainment,” she said. “It’s about being super hyper and super fun and you can absolutely not drop your baton. People think if I drop my baton that I suck.”

Johnson said dropping it should not be equated with sucking, but she knows it puts a damper on the performance if she does.

The first time she twirled at a basketball game was in high school.

“People thought I was going to suck,” she said. “They told me that after.”

She said competing is fun, but she enjoys performing to songs that are on the radio that everyone is going to be into.

Johnson said it feels better to perform than to win a title.

“I think the performance in the public venue is when you can feel your love of twirling come out,” she said. “That’s definitely where I felt it.”