Sarah Johnson

This Pirate is raising
the bar with Olympic Weightlifting.

Senior and exercise physiology major Sarah Johnson began lifting weights at the age of 14.

"I always played the weird sports," said Johnson, who began weightlifting to get better at football, a sport she played from 7th seventh grade through 12th grade.

"I trained hard with the guys and it's just something I always loved," said Johnson. "I was the smallest guard and defensive tackle on the team, but that's what I played and that was fun."

When Johnson wasn't playing football, she was throwing discus and shot put in track and field, becoming a four-year letter winner. Her interest in weightlifting grew after taking a class dedicated to it at Southern Nash High School in Spring Hope, NC.

Johnson went on to break her high school's power clean record. By her senior year of high school, she was named Female Athlete of the Year. She was offered an athletic scholarship to a small school, but turned it down to be a walk-on for East Carolina University's track team her freshman year.

"I got to walk onto the track team here, not because I was a great thrower, but because I was a pretty good weightlifter," said Johnson.

At the beginning of her sophomore year, Johnson underwent shoulder surgery.

"I kind of went through a personal slump," she said. "I was just going through the motions. I got apathetic and I had no drive."

During this time, Johnson met her future weightlifting coach, ECU College of Health & Human Performance professor Dave Kemble, who visited her kinesiology class as a guest lecturer.

"I went up to him in a sling," said Johnson. "I was like, 'I want to lift weights.' I was still doing track at that time so he didn't really think much of it.

Soon after, Johnson split from the ECU track team.

"That kind of hurt (to have) someone look at you and say, 'You're not good enough to be on our team anymore,'" said Johnson. "I knew that if I didn't start doing something right after I stopped doing track ...… I was going to regress back."

Johnson returned to weightlifting, reconnected with Kembel and competed in her first meet at the ECU Open in April 2015.

"I'm walking up to the platform to get set up and the announcer [says], "‘If she makes this lift, she qualifies for the American Open,’” said Johnson. "You can just hear the whole crowd start whispering. You don't go to your first meet and qualify for the American Open. It just doesn't happen. Then everybody gets really quiet."

Johnson hit the lift, qualifying for the American Open. "I just feel this surge of energy and the whole place just goes wild and all my teammates run over to the platform," said Johnson. "It's one of the most amazing things I think I've ever felt in my whole life."

She went on to lift at the National University Championship in September 2015, placing fifth overall and third in the clean and jerk. This December, Johnson also competed and placed at the American Open.

Johnson competes with ECU Club Weightlifting, a co-ed organization that enables students to train in Olympic-lifting style. The club meets locally at Crossfit Tier One in Greenville every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 3:30 p.m.

"I hit rock bottom probably December of 2014 and it's been a steady climb up to now," said Johnson. "It's been an uphill getting back to the driven, positive person that I should be, the person that I'm meant to be. Weightlifting has definitely given me the spark to go do what I was meant to do. It put me back on that positive track."

As part of her senior internship, Johnson works at CrossFit Tier One and the Murphy Center at ECU. She trains five to six days a week as she prepares for the ECU Weightlifting Open. She plans to compete at the National Championship in Salt Lake City. Johnson also hopes to one day compete on the U.S Olympic Weightlifting team.

She is set to graduate in May.


What goals do you have for yourself?

The biggest goal I've always had for myself for the last couple years – when I write my goals on the mirror – is, always have a positive impact on others. My high school football coach, Brian Foster, always stressed that. Never get complacent. That can be in all factors of life. Eventually, I would love to be near the top of the chain in a sports performance center as a coach or have my own [facility]. I could also see myself at the same time back at a high school coaching those kids. I'm not really sure which way I'm going to go yet but it will be a coach somewhere making a positive impact on other people. 

What was it like being the only girl on a football team?

The guys on the team accepted me because I worked hard, but there were definitely people who looked at me and said, "you're not going to be able to do that." But for the most part, people got behind me and they were like, "it's really cool that you're doing that." The guys were always behind me on the team. They were very supportive and the coaches at the high school are part of the reason why I ended up here. And I still go home and see them and talk to them. I talk to my head football coach all the time.


Photography by: Cliff Hollis
Written by: Summer Tillman


College:  Health and Human Performance

Major: Exercise Physiology

Age:  22

Classification/Year: Senior

Hometown: Spring Hope, NC

Clubs & Organizations: ECU Club Weightlifting

Hobbies & Interests: I like cooking and fishing


Favorite place to eat: El Paso; a Mexican restaurant close to where I live

Favorite Movie: Rocky 3

Favorite website:  I spend a lot of time on YouTube watching lifting clips and training videos

Dream job: Strength and Conditioning Coach or full- time athlete

Favorite place on campus:  Dowdy Ficklen Stadium

Favorite hangout: I spend most of my time at the gym, so that's where I tend to hang out

Favorite class: Essentials of Strength and Conditioning

Favorite band/musician: The Zac Brown Band and Eric Church

Favorite TV show: Probably the original Scooby-Doo. I really like Bob's Burgers and Parks and Recreation, too


Most Influential Professor: Dave Kemble

The one thing you cannot live without: Coffee

Role Models: My coaches and parents. I don't really look up to other athletes. My parents' names are Joe and Tracey Johnson.

Advice for fellow students: If you're going to do something, fully commit to it.

Your words to live by: Always have a positive impact on others. 

What is something cool about ECU that you wish you knew during your first year? There's a lot of research that our school does that I was unaware of, and that's really cool. Most of the professors here have something going on; you just have to ask them about it.

Words of Wisdom

"The biggest goal I've always had for myself for the last couple years – when I write my goals on the mirror – is, always have a positive impact on others. My high school football coach, Brian Foster, always stressed that. Always have a positive impact on others."

– Sarah Johnson