Scott Fowler

Balancing act: Duke diver Abby Johnston juggles medical school, Olympic team

Duke med student aims for second Olympic medal

Four years ago, Duke student Abigail Johnston won a silver medal in synchronized diving at the 2012 London Games. Now, the medical student looks to earn another medal in the Olympics, this time in the 3­meter springboard event.
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Four years ago, Duke student Abigail Johnston won a silver medal in synchronized diving at the 2012 London Games. Now, the medical student looks to earn another medal in the Olympics, this time in the 3­meter springboard event.

Abby Johnston is used to the feeling of speeding toward something that is rushing up to meet her.

Most of the time for this two-time Olympic diver, what’s rushing at her is the water. But often it is high-level schoolwork. Johnston, 26, will start her third year at Duke’s medical school in August on the day after she gets back from Brazil and the Olympics.

And some of the time it’s her social life. As if she weren’t already busy enough, Johnston just got engaged to an assistant football coach at Duke. Now she has a wedding to plan as well.

How does she do all that?

“I think I’m good at partitioning things,” Johnston said. “And I don’t procrastinate a lot. I don’t have time.”

Johnston has long thrived in situations where good decisions must be made in a split second. For a diver, the few moments in the air before splashdown mean everything. As an aspiring doctor, Johnston has picked emergency medicine as her specialty.

“I like that’s it always different and you don’t know what’s going to come through the door,” Johnston said. “I also like the fact that it’s a high-pressure situation, which I guess is pretty similar to what I’ve been facing all along in my athletic career.”

I also like the fact that it's a high-pressure situation, which I guess is pretty similar to what I've been facing all along in my athletic career.

Olympic diver Abby Johnston on picking emergency medicine as her specialty at Duke’s medical school

In 2012, Johnston was a surprise medalist at the Summer Olympics in London. She and partner Kelci Bryant teamed up in synchronized 3-meter springboard diving. They won a silver medal in what Johnston called a “perfect experience.” Johnston has never watched the video of the competition, which was won by a Chinese diving pair, because she said she doesn’t want to dislodge her incredible “firsthand memories.”

A sunflower proposal

Originally from Ohio, Johnston also went to Duke as an undergraduate. So did fellow Duke diver and 2012 Olympic medalist Nick McCrory. Both then followed their college coach at Duke to Indiana when he got a job there. Both would have some injury issues. McCrory has retired from competitive diving, but Johnston decided to go for one more Olympics first under new Duke coach Nunzio Esposto.

Johnston first moved back to Duke once she got into med school, which she began in August 2014. Then, just last month, she squeezed into the Brazil games. This time she didn’t qualify for the U.S. team in synchronized diving but instead qualified as an individual diver at the same 3-meter height. She will compete in Rio, and then her career is done.

Johnston was originally a gymnast, but gave that up when she had back issues. She was well-accustomed to flipping in the air, however, by the time she seriously took up diving.

“I’m hanging up the suit,” Johnston said.

She will follow that by putting on a white coat, and then in 2017, a white dress. Johnston plans to marry Duke graduate assistant coach Sam McGrath in 2017. When we talked, she was still bubbling about how McGrath proposed to her recently.

“We were walking down the beach and there was a sunflower in the sand,” she said. “That’s my favorite flower, and I said, ‘That’s so weird! Why is there a flower in the sand?’

“I looked closer, and my student ID was actually in the flower pot. We had first met because I lost my student ID at Duke and he found it. Then he had emailed me. So he put my student ID in the flower pot but he had changed my last name on it from Johnston to McGrath. And then he got on one knee.”

‘The beginning of everything else’

Johnston will not be favored to win a medal in Rio, but she has surprised people before. That includes some of the officials at Duke’s medical school. Not all of them were originally aware she was combining two diving practices a day with med school.

It became apparent one day, however, when Johnston was followed by a strange woman into a class. Recalled Johnston, who knew the woman was legitimate and had come to give her a standard drug test: “I had to go up to the course director and say, ‘Hi, I’m an Olympic diver. This is the drug tester that’s following me, and do you mind if she sits with us?’ He looked at me like I had three heads. And I said, ‘I don’t know how to explain this any better.’”

Johnson would rather make a small splash than a big one in Rio – divers strive to displace as little water as possible when they enter it. But either way she knows she is almost done with one phase of her life and about to start another.

“This is it for diving,” she said. “But it is the beginning of everything else.”

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