Rebecca Johnston focused on another Olympic gold
by Randy Pascal
With her 28th birthday more than four months away, Rebecca Johnston is still a very young woman. Yet she will quite likely begin, come August 1st,
what is likely to be her final centralization camp, as the Canadian Women’s Olympic Hockey team prepares for February of 2018 and Pyeongchang,
“It’s a little sad to think that I am getting closer to the end of my career,” Johnston acknowledged during a recent one week layover at the home of her
parents, before leaving again for Calgary. The flip side of this coin, however, is a summer spent without having to spend a whole lot of sleepless nights,
worrying about her spot on the team.
Safe to say that Johnston is well entrenched as a top six forward with the national team, arguably their most dangerous offensive threat on many a night.
“It’s different in terms of where I am in my career and the role that I play on the team,” she said.
“It’s a lot more fun when you play without worry and have a little more confidence and freedom to be able to play the way that you can play. I’m excited
to finish my career and hopefully focus on something else.”
Extremely humble by nature, Johnston has gradually emerged as a team leader on a national level, while still staying very much true to herself. “I think
I’m a little bit more aware of eyes being on me, and me being aware of the younger girls, knowing when they can use encouragement, giving them a boost,
because I know what it’s like being younger and playing and worrying all the time,” she said.
“In terms of personality, I think I am more and more comfortable just being myself. I like to have it light and a little bit goofy in the dressing
room.” Surprisingly, given all of the success that Johnston has enjoyed, most notably during her career with the Cornell Big Red of the NCAA, it
still took a while to develop the confidence that is such a key to success at an elite level.
“The last couple of years, especially the Sochi year and after the 2014 Olympics, I think I started to really feel comfortable playing to my abilities,”
she said. “I think I started to play like I was one of the top players on the team. The last couple of Worlds and Four Nations Cups, I have really found
the player that I am.”
“I think I have come into my own as a hockey player, and I’m happy with how I am playing,” Johnston added. “Obviously, I always want to get better and
improve, but I am happy with the way I am playing.”
A truly phenomenal athlete throughout her time in Sudbury – it’s easy to forget that Johnston was a nationally ranked track & field athlete in her early
years at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary – the youngest of the three girls in the six child family clan has continued to thrive with her off-ice regimen,
even as she has dealt with some nagging ailments in the recent past.
“I still feel like the training is not any harder, doing what I did even five to ten years ago,” she said. “Actually, I feel like I am getting stronger
still. But there are definitely things that I have had to overcome, especially with my injury last year.”
“I don’t think I am ever going to be a sprinter again,” she said with a smile. Johnston was a multiple OFSAA medal winner in the 100m, 200m and 400m
during her time as a Knight. “With training and playing for so long, I know what my body needs and doesn’t need. I have learned to rest when I need to.
It’s more about having to maintain and be smarter, as I’ve gotten older.”
Team Canada will enter the preparation period for the Olympics with a somewhat mixed mindset. On the one hand, Johnston and her predecessors have
successfully claimed gold in each of the past four sets of Games. On the other hand, the Americans recent World Championship triumph made it four straight
for the U.S. ladies, and seven of the past eight that were claimed by the folks south of the border.
Johnston is optimistic that the Olympic trend can be maintained in South Korea. “I think the key to our success with that is that we play against guys
teams, and we play a lot of games,” she said, alluding to the schedule Team Canada will maintain in the months leading up to the Games. “We have team
chemistry, playing 45-50 games against the guys. We improve drastically with the speed. When you’re in that atmosphere, you push each other.”
As for the monkey on the back that has been the Worlds, Johnston also shared some thoughts. “Sometimes, we spend too much time focusing on them,
minimizing the amount of chances that they get, and not giving ourselves the credit that we can beat them,” she opined.
And when the dust settles on her third set of Olympics, Johnston will face a difficult decision. “Let’s see how I feel,” she said. “I’ve definitely been
thinking of taking a year or so off to see how I feel, maybe pursue a professional career (not playing hockey) and see how I like it. I think it would be
good for me to take a little time away from hockey. I will definitely miss it.”
Interestingly, despite a family tradition that is rich in terms of coaching ranks, Johnston does not see that option in the cards for herself. “I wish
that I wanted to, almost, because I think it would fall into place nicely with my lifestyle – but I don’t think I want to coach,” she stated.
“I still don’t know 100% what I want to do, but I would love to stay in the sport, maybe in communications or event promotions, or something like that.”
In the meantime, her focus remains fixated on a third, and possibly final, Olympic gold medal.