When the Washington Nationals signed Reed Johnson to a minor league contract late last month, they added a 38-year-old outfielder with a dozen years of major-league experience. Little did they know they were also acquiring a former competitive gymnast, a childhood phenom of sorts who competed in national tournaments until he was in high school. The Washington Times spoke to Johnson about his previous athletic career, and how it’s helped him on the baseball field.
How did you get into gymnastics?
Answer: Just when I was like four years old. My son’s in it now. Just from those experiences, being able to jump on trampolines and do flips and not being afraid of heights, you kind of learn how to control your body a little bit better. Things of that nature can really kind of help you later on in your career. And that really wasn’t the intention of my parents, to do that, because I was serious about it, like moving toward the Olympic games and stuff like that. And then it got to a point where I realized that wasn’t going to be an achievable goal, and that’s kind of when I veered off toward other sports, baseball and soccer in high school. It was right around high school when I stopped doing it, about 13, 14 years old. But it was a serious event. My mom used to drive me probably 30, 45 minutes to practice three days a week because I lived in a really small town when I was born. About 2,500 people. So you’d have to really go elsewhere to compete in any competitive type of sports. They had baseball and soccer and stuff, but if you wanted to do something specialized, you were going to have to go out of town and do it. So it started off, I think just with my parents initially. Because at four or five, you’re just kind of jumping in the car and your parents are taking you wherever they want to take you to. But then they started to realize that I was pretty good at it, and it was something that really, they were two to three hour practices. Nowadays, my son has an hour baseball practice and that’s nowhere near enough time to burn off any of his energy. So I think that was more of their concern, just to try to get me involved in something that was going to take three or four hours, whether it was because they wanted the free time or because I was having a good time. I don’t.
Q: What was the biggest tournament that you did?
A: I went to nationals twice. There was one that was in Austin, Texas, and another one actually in Fullerton [California] where I ended up going to college about six or seven years later. So yeah, I went to a couple big tournaments like that. But those are all six events. You basically competed in an all-around. And then you have individual events that you can qualify for, as well, like specialized events and stuff like that.
Q: What was your best event?
A: Probably the swinging events: high bar and rings, like the strength events. My weaker ones were probably, I mean floor exercise was a decent event for me. But it was not among the top ones. It’s probably parallel bars, rings and high bar. Those were probably my three favorites. Because there’s a lot of flying and tricks you can kind of do, things like that.
Q: You went to nationals. How’d you do? Or how close did you get to the Olympics?
A: I did OK. And that was kind of when I realized that it wasn’t something that [was for me]. You know, I’ve always had that attitude as an athlete that I wanted to be the best at whatever I did. I had an opportunity to go to a junior college and play baseball there, or I could go to a Division I school and sit for a year with Mark Kotsay, Jeremy Giambi, Aaron Rowand, like those types of players who were there already, and I wasn’t going to play. But I said you know what, I want to go. I’m the type of player that can learn a lot from those players, even if I’m not playing, because I wanted to play at the highest level. I realized with gymnastics that I was good at it, but I wasn’t at the highest level. I was never going to reach the highest level of gymnastics as far as going to the Olympic games or the World Championships or something like that. So I realized that it was time for me to move on. It kind of got to the point, also, where I was at events on the weekends and I just wanted to be out playing baseball with my friends. It became not as fun for me. Plus, it’s like being 5 [feet] 10 as a gymnast, I’m a giant. The problem with that is it beats up your body even worse than those little guys that are able to compete and do some of those tricks. You get beat up even more. So that also had something to do with it.
Q: You mentioned diving for balls in the outfield. How else has gymnastics helped you in baseball?
A: Yeah, I just remember doing flips on floor exercise as a young kid and then being around the pool with my dad. Running on the concrete on the pool, diving for balls as he’d toss them from the side, and I’d practice diving. But that alone, the gymnastics allowed me to kind of develop into that. So I was always learning how to control my body, and you learn more about your body the deeper you get into it, and the more advanced you get as a gymnast. My son’s in gymnastics. My daughter’s in gymnastics. I’ll keep them in that until it gets to a point where it becomes detrimental to your body, because I think I took it a little too far. The more advanced you get, the more you pay for the tricks that you learn. You end up, I’ve had broken arms and different injuries from trying to learn tricks like that that can obviously hinder you down the road at playing other sports. Fortunately, I was able to have a pretty good career in baseball.
Q: Yeah, it worked out OK for you.
A: Yeah, yeah I think I made the right decision. Not a whole lot of money in professional gymnastics. There’s no kids in school swapping gymnastics cards, you know? But it’s definitely part of my path, something a lot of people may not know.