COLUMBIA — Whitnee Johnson is used to being judged, performing dangerous moves and working hard.
When Johnson, who has been involved with gymnastics since age 7, steps out on the floor or jumps onto the bars, her ability is examined and scored to determine titles and recognition. And in order to improve and get more recognition, she has to do things that scare her.
She's currently working on a Tkachev, a technique on the uneven bars that requires a blind jump backward. Having the bar out of sight is frightening, but she wants to be a great gymnast, and that demands learning new skills.
"I've been working my whole life for this, and it's definitely paid off," said Johnson, a 17-year-old senior at Rock Bridge High School, who in July was offered a scholarship from Kent State University. She verbally committed to the school and plans to make the commitment official when the early signing period begins in November, making her the first gymnast from Show-Me Gymnastics to earn a full athletic scholarship to college.
"It's a full-ride athletic scholarship basically worth $100,000," said Tom Ward, the assistant gymnastics coach and recruitment coordinator at Kent State. "It's almost like winning the lottery."
Scratching a winning lottery ticket is spontaneous, something that can't be planned. But Whitnee Johnson positioned herself to earn a scholarship. She knew she wanted college gymnastics to define her future, at least for the next four years, and she knew it would take work to get there.
"Whitnee knows what she wants in life and what she has to do to get it," her mother Tammi Johnson said. "She will get home from gymnastics practice at 8 p.m., have dinner and start her homework. If she's not done by 12 or 1 a.m., she'll go to sleep and set her alarm for 5 a.m. to finish. She's just that kind of person."
Johnson's team practices at Show-Me Gymnastics are not mandatory, and coaches never force gymnasts to work at something they are not willing to do. Development is reliant on personal motivation.
"A lot of coaching gymnastics is coaching the head, the mental. Gymnasts can pick up the skills pretty quickly, it's the fear they have to get over," said Kathy Sanford, owner of Show-Me Gymnastics, who has been coaching Johnson for 10 years.
Johnson took on the responsibility to challenge herself early on. Once a week for the first three weeks of her gymnastics career, she was moved to a more difficult class level. Even as a 7 year old, she learned quickly. Within six months of ever stepping foot on a balance beam, she was competing.
In the past two years, she has spent at least 16 hours a week in the gym fine-tuning her skills and coaching younger gymnasts. It's hasn't been the life of a typical high school student, but her diligence and willingness to adapt impressed both her future teammates at Kent State and their coaches at the Kent State gymnastics camp Johnson attended in July.
"There was no debating, we all looked at each other and knew that we would offer the scholarship to her," Ward said.