He was wearing shades of pink, not his trademark orange. But Kenyatta Johnson had no trouble recognizing Rickie Fowler when he surprised the woman he called his “fellow Olympian” with a video message on Tuesday.
“Keep crushing it out there,” Fowler told her. “Love seeing what you do.”
Fowler taped the video for Johnson, who won the gold medal in golf at the 2011 Special Olympics Summer Games in Athens, Greece, during a break in his preparations for the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. He’s sending her some autographed tournament-themed Cobra and Puma gear, too.
“I was really surprised,” Johnson says with an infectious smile shortly after viewing Fowler’s message. “I was shocked.”
The 42-year-old Johnson has been a Special Olympics athlete for nearly 30 years. Early on, she competed in track and field, basketball, bowling, soccer and even speed skating. Now, Johnson concentrates on golf and tennis, as well as coaching younger athletes in some of those other sports she once played.
Along the way, Johnson has participated in World Games in Raleigh, North Carolina (1999), Athens and Abu Dhabi (2019). The gold medal victory in Greece was particularly satisfying for Johnson, who trailed Australian Amanda Patterson by five strokes entering the final round and won by nine.
“I was nervous,” says Johnson, who’s a big fan of Michelle Wie West and now, Fowler, who was a member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team in Rio de Janeiro. “So, the last round, I said just shoot, just shoot. I was just calm when the last hole came. OK, I think I got it. So, I just shot the ball in the hole. And oh, I actually did win it.”
Johnson first signed up for Special Olympics, which serves children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities, when she was 13. She remembers that as a kid “I never talked, so I guess back then they thought something was wrong with me because I never really spoke.”
Taking that leap of faith and putting herself out there, though, wasn’t easy for Johnson.
“At first I was nervous, you know, because back then you go to school, they’d be like, oh, you do Special Olympics, or you know, the r-word,” Johnson says. “So first I was kind of scared, but I tried that anyway.
“A couple of years later, I think, I went to my first Florida Games and then that's when I said, wow, I could actually be myself, especially I don't have to hide.”Kenyatta Johnson. (Courtesy of Special Olympics)
The World Games in Raleigh was another stepping stone for Johnson, who lives in St. Lucie County, Florida. She represented the United States in bowling that year. The friendships she made and the confidence she gained there were transformative.
“Everybody said I was a whole different person,” Johnson says. “I was talking and everything. That was a big experience.”
Johnson has gone from a woman who never thought she would leave Florida to someone who has traveled the world. She works as a cook at an elementary school – all the “kids love pizza,” she says with a laugh – and is raising her great niece Alexis, who is now 8 years old.
Johnson started playing golf about 15 years ago. When someone first suggested she try it, “I was like, golf?” she recalls, the doubt evident in her voice. After learning the fundamentals, she moved to nine-hole unified golf where she played with a partner. Now, she competes on her own.
“This is a cool sport, like a relaxed sport,” Johnson says. “Like you don’t have to rush so much. My favorite part of my golf is my driving. I love drives. I don't like to putt.”
Jim Stratton, who is the director of communications for Special Olympics Florida, says Johnson has become a role model for the kids and adults in the organization. She is one of the group’s Athlete Ambassadors in the Race for Inclusion.
“Getting involved in Special Olympics and having people sort of recognize how strong an athlete she was and how a strong and competitor, and having these experiences of traveling around the world, it really sort of brought her out of her shell,” Stratton says.
“So, you have this woman who was very shy and uncomfortable speaking around people, and now she's become sort of an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities and is very comfortable sort of talking about what Special Olympics has meant for her.”
And what would she tell someone who is considering following in her footsteps?
“Well, I'd let them know that don't be scared to try Special Olympics,” Johnson says. “You're growing, you'll grow with it. You'll have a voice with Special Olympics. We have a voice.
“It teaches you how to be, I guess, independent. You can compete not only, especially if you complete in regular sports, (it will) help you build up your confidence and try different things.”Kenyatta Johnson. (Courtesy of Special Olympics)