Rio de Janeiro – Not many Americans are born into rugby, but Katie Johnson’s athletic future might have been decided when her father, who was coaching the University of Minnesota’s women’s team, first saw Katie’s mother.
“Jennie was 5-8, 165 pounds of solid muscle and faster than hell,’’ Dan “DJ’’ Johnson said. “I was already hooked on rugby. I got hooked on her, too.’’
Dan was a hyper-fit all-around athlete growing up. He played running back at St. Louis Park High. When he was 25, a friend dated a woman from New Zealand. Interest in rugby flew through their social group faster than gossip.
“It was a fun game, and of course after every game is a social,’’ Dan Johnson said. “I met many of my longtime friends through rugby.’’
Dan would take his children to practice when he coached Minnesota. One day little Katie asked Dad why there weren’t any rugby teams she could play on. Dad told her, “There just aren’t any.’’ Katie responded, “Well, start some.’’ So he did.
Dan started the Hopkins youth rugby program, the first in the area. Katie was in second grade.
Today Dan coaches at Hopkins and is considered one of the founders of Minnesota’s rugby scene, which is sending Garrett Bender as well as Johnson to the Olympics, and Nate Augspurger as a travel replacement.
Johnson’s U.S. sevens team begins play with two matches on Saturday: 11 a.m. vs. Fiji and 4 p.m. vs. Colombia.
“Tony Mills, Garrett’s coach, is my brother-in-law,’’ Dan Johnson said. “He and I played rugby together on the Minneapolis club. He ended up marrying my sister. He’s from New Zealand so he knew what rugby was all about.’’
Katie Johnson attended Wisconsin-Milwaukee, won a bronze medal at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2013 and a silver with at the 2015 Pan Am Games.
“I grew up around a lot of boys, and the fact that the rules are the same for the women’s game really attracted me to it,’’ Katie Johnson said. “If you play rugby anywhere in the world you’re part of this family, and you really can’t find this kind of family anywhere else.
“Seeing the players Minneapolis rugby has produced is pretty impressive.’’
Jennie Johnson was Jennie Nelson when she starred at Owatonna High. She is in the school’s Hall of Fame for swimming, gymnastics and track.
Her daughter had more opportunities to star in rugby. Katie got to play the sport as a child, thanks to her father, and to extend her career to the Olympics, thanks to the adoption of rugby sevens in the 2016 Games.
Rugby sevens is the faster, more streamlined version of the game. It requires speed and stamina. It has grown in popularity and was chosen for the Olympics because of its constant action, whereas rugby 15s, the traditional version of the game, includes stops in the action and emphasizes brawn.
“There are a lot of hot spots for American rugby,’’ she said. “California — San Francisco is huge for rugby. But I would definitely suggest playing in Minnesota, at all levels of the game.’’
Johnson is playing despite a torn labrum in her hip. She plans to have surgery after the Olympics. She also plans to backpack overseas.
“Our bodies are all breaking down,’’ she said. “We all just want to finish this journey strong, and then we’ll have time to heal.
“The hip isn’t too bad. It doesn’t affect me; it’s just painful. If it did affect me I’d be replaced immediately. But you can play with your pain.’’
In the sport she and her parents chose, there isn’t much choice.