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'One is a nice break from the other': Diver Abby Johnston prepares for second Olympics ahead of third year at Duke Medical School

The Duke School of Medicine likely has not gotten many requests from students to switch their clinical and research years—typically their second and third of medical school—but gave Abby Johnston permission.

She had a good reason to make the change.

A silver medalist at the 2012 London Olympics, Johnston has had to balance her responsibilities as a medical student since earning her undergraduate degree from the University in 2013 with her goal of qualifying for this summer's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Part of that balance meant switching to a new event after becoming the first American to win a medal in synchronized diving with teammate Kelci Bryant.

But another component was changing her medical school journey to allow for multiple practices per day with Duke diving head coach Nunzio Esposto, who will accompany Johnston to Brazil before the Olympics begin in August as part of the United States coaching staff. 

“I feel like it is really easy to pursue two passions that I really love. One is a nice break from the other,” Johnston said. “I get a physical release when I’m diving, and going back to school breaks all the stress of trying to make the Olympic team.”

Although she ended America's 12-year medal drought in all diving events with Bryant in the 3-meter synchronized event, another Olympic trip this year was anything but a guarantee for Johnston. The Upper Arlington, Ohio, native had season-ending shoulder surgery during her senior 2012-13 season after the London Olympics.

Since starting medical school in Fall 2014 and being granted an alternative medical degree path, Johnston realized she would not be able to compete in both the synchronized and individual 3-meter diving events as she once had hoped after finishing eighth with partner Laura Ryan in February's FINA World Cup in the synchronized event. Despite the disappointing result, Johnston decided to tackle the goal of qualifying without a partner by her side head on.

The reason why? The 2011 NCAA champion wanted another hurdle to clear.

“I’m always trying to challenge myself in different ways, and [the individual 3-meter diving competition] was an event that I had written myself off and many people had written myself off for many years, and I wanted to prove that I could do it,” Johnston said.

Johnston's decision paid off June 26 when she qualified for her second Olympics by placing second at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. The United States was not even certain it could take two individual 3-meter competitors to Rio, but after FINA notified the U.S., Johnston joined Stanford's Kassidy Cook in qualifying.

“[Abby’s] done a phenomenal job balancing both being a high-level athlete and medical school,” Esposto said. “She’s had the drive [and] determination and she’s gotten better and better as I’ve coached her over the past few years.”

The 26-year old’s daily routine consists of waking up at 6 a.m. and packing in two practices a day and coursework in her free time. 

Johnston is not the first high-profile athlete to navigate Duke's medical program, however, and has taken advice from Dr. Georgia Schweitzer Beasley, who was the ACC Women’s Basketball Player of the Year in 2000 and 2001 and played in the WNBA before graduating from Duke’s medical school in 2008.

"She’s someone who I’ve always gone to and looked up to," Johnston said.

With trials in the rearview mirror, Johnston will look to become the first American woman to medal as an individual on the 3-meter platform since Kelly McCormick in 1988. She hopes to build upon her most recent international individual 3-meter competition—the FINA Puerto Rico Grand Prix March 31 to April 3—in which she placed second. The diving portion of the Olympics will begin Aug. 7.

Although competing as an individual means coming up with two extra—and often more challenging—dives, not having to accommodate a partner during a packed schedule and maintaining a more narrow focus has likely helped the seven-time senior national diving champion prepare for her second Olympics.

“[With] the synchronized [event], you have to have enough time to train with your synchronized partner and with this, she’s not having to go to another pool to train with a person, so it gives us a little bit more leeway with what we’re doing and the amount of training that we need to do individually is a little easier,” Esposto said.

After competing in Rio, Johnston plans to walk away from competitive diving.

“I’ll start my clinical rotations actually the day I get back, that morning,” Johnston said. “I’ll be a full-time medical student and I’m going to hang up the suit.”

Hank Tucker contributed reporting. 


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