A Heart of Gold
Illinois woman overcomes adversity to win big at Sydney Olympic Games.
BY JOHN ALLEN
In the late 1980s, teen Nancy Johnson had no idea that a desire to hunt deer with dad would eventually bag her a bigger prize: an Olympic gold medal.
Indeed, Johnson won the very first gold medal awarded at the recent 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. The 26-year-old native of Downers Grove in Chicago's western suburbs took honors in the women's 10-meter air rifle, her final shot defeating Korean silver medalist Cho-Hyun Kang and Chinese bronze medalist Jing Gao.
Johnson's odyssey began with a yen to deer hunt with her father, Ben Napolski. "I wanted to be an archer, but there wasn't any place or organization nearby where I could practice," Johnson said. "But then my dad saw an ad for the Downers Grove Junior Rifle Club, which was three blocks from my house and had been around for 35 years. Our homeowner's association had a building, and that's where we practiced."
Though Johnson's high school, Benet Academy in Lisle, had no shooting club, she was able to shoot competitively all four years against other private clubs and some high school clubs. Ironically, Johnson was shooting a .22-caliber long rifle, not a bow or the .177-caliber pellet rifle that would later win her Olympic honors.
Johnson began firing air rifles during her freshman year at the University of Kentucky because team members were required to shoot it and the .22, she said. The air rifle is fired from a standing position at a target 10 meters (about 11 yards) away. The .22 is fired from standing, kneeling and prone positions at a 50-meter (about 54 yards) target.
"I've always liked standing best," Johnson said. "It comes naturally to me. I wasn't great at other sports, but I was good at shooting."
How good? Well, in addition to the Olympic medal, she won gold in air rifle at the 1999 U.S. championships, gold in air rifle at the 1996 World Cup, silver in three-position rifle at the 1999 Pan American Games, bronze in three-position rifle at the 1998 national championships, bronze in three-position rifle at the 1998 World Cup, bronze in air rifle at the 1997 World Cup and bronze in air rifle at the 1995 national championships. She is a three-time collegiate All-American and won a NCAA championship in air rifle in 1994.
She has won two world championships as a five-year member of the U.S. National Team, and also competed in the 1996 Olympics at Atlanta, finishing out of medal contention.
"It was just my fourth international competition, and I wasn't up to the pressure," Johnson admits. "Four years makes a big difference."
Johnson might have even more hardware were it not for a few setbacks she has suffered along the way. At age 17 she was hit by a mysterious ailment that robbed her of feeling on the left side of her body. Originally thought to be Multiple Sclerosis, a progressive nerve disease that in some cases can lead to complete paralysis, the malady disappeared on its own in about six months. After that, she needed a year of intense physical therapy to regain her strength.
"The cause of the nerve injury was never found," Johnson said. "It affected my shooting all through 1991. I couldn't use my arm at all. I had a small bout of it again last year, but it went away on its own."
On her way to the 1997 national championships in California, Johnson was involved in an auto accident that left her unable to compete due to a sprained wrist.
"We rear-ended another car," she said. "We were going pretty fast, and I probably would have been killed if our car hadn't stood up so well to the impact."
Johnson currently resides in Alabama with her husband, Ken, an Army staff sergeant stationed at Ft. Benning. A Massachusetts native, he also competed at the Sydney Games, though he didn't medal. He did, however, win gold in both air rifle and three-position rifle at the 1999 Pan American Games, silver in three-position rifle at the 2000 World Cup, and bronze in air rifle at the 2000 national championships.
"He shoots the exact same events I do, but he gets paid by the Army to do it," Johnson laughs. She also partially credits the Army for her own success, noting the importance of her use of their range facilities for practice.
Johnson, who has a BS degree in horticulture from Kentucky, has been on leave-of-absence from her job in the nursery of a Home Depot store in Columbus, Ga. "I took the last year off to pay 100-percent attention to my shooting. Home Depot salaried me under their Olympic Job Opportunities Program so I could go on trips and make a living at what I do," she said, adding that there is no professional circuit for her sport.
"Our sport for the most part is strictly amateur," she said. "We go to competitions once or twice a month. I recently returned from Germany, but I didn't do too well [She finished ninth.] It's hard to come off a big thing like the Olympics and be completely prepared for other competitions."
Regarding the future, Johnson wants to continue shooting, but hasn't made up her mind about competing in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Her husband's Army stint ends in March, and she says they may both end up in graduate school at nearby Auburn University—she seeking a master's in nutrition and he an MBA.
Although Johnson has been out with her husband while he hunted deer, duck and wild boar, she still hasn't hunted with her father. She notes with pride that he has instead followed her, taking up competitive target shooting.
She finally bought a bow after the Olympics and says she'd like to get into 3-D target shooting.
"I'll start off just for fun," she said. "After that, who knows?"