For most Olympic athletes, life after the Olympics means reliving the experience, then hopping right back into workouts and training for the next competition.
But for former Blue Devil diving star Abby Johnston, it meant continuing her medical school journey after hanging up her suit—at least for now.
Coming off a 12th-place finish in the 3-meter competition in Rio, Johnston is back as a full-time medical student at Duke. The former NCAA champion earned a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics in the synchronized 3-meter event before finishing her undergraduate degree at the University in 2013 and starting medical school in 2014.
Johnston balanced her preparation to become a doctor with her training for the Rio Olympics, and despite taking a break from diving now has more to balance after getting engaged to Sam McGrath. A graduate assistant with Duke’s football team who works with the team’s linebackers, McGrath asked Johnston to marry him earlier this summer before traveling to Brazil to watch his fiancé compete.
“Now it’s medical school, wedding planning,” Johnston said Saturday before Duke’s game against Virginia at Wallace Wade Stadium. “I’m entering my clinical rotations in the hospital and looking back to Rio, it feels like a lifetime ago.”
Before the Olympics, Johnston was juggling medical school classes with two diving practices per day. Now that she can devote her time fully to medicine, however, she spends most of her time in the hospital rather than in the pool.
Her medical interests include neurology and psychiatry, and she said she plans to eventually work in emergency medicine.
“It fits well with my personality. It’s fast-paced, high-pressure, you don’t really know what’s going to come through that door,” Johnston said. “I like that it’s always changing and something different.”
Although Johnston said before competing in August that the Rio Olympics would be her last diving competition, when asked if she had retired Saturday, the Upper Arlington, Ohio, native had a different response.
“[I’m] not officially [retired], no....I haven’t completely shut the door,” Johnston added. “It was a bit of a rollercoaster [after London], I was hurt and I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ and then I decided maybe I do want to do it. It was an up-and-down ride of whether or not I wanted to go to another Olympics and to put myself in that emotional rollercoaster and try to evaluate if I miss jumping in the pool or if I’m ready to start the next chapter.”
After ending America’s 12-year medal drought in 2012 with partner Kelci Bryant, Johnston found herself alone on the platform in Rio. She finished fifth in the individual event’s semifinals before struggling in the final round en route to a 12th-place finish.
However, Johnston’s rapid transition to the individual competition showed that the former synchronized star could hold her own by herself.
“It was a different mindset competing as an individual rather than a synchronized pair,” Johnston said. “I always sort of pigeon-holed myself as a synchronized diver and I doubted whether or not I could be internationally competitive as an individual. My performance throughout the Olympics showed that I belonged with the best of them.”
Although Johnston did not win a medal in Rio like she did in London, she said she thoroughly enjoyed what was potentially her final Olympic experience.
From taking in Brazilian culture to the outpouring of support from family, friends and Duke’s athletic department, Johnston could not have imagined a more complete Olympic experience. Duke diving head coach Nunzio Esposto was with Johnston every step of the way.
“It was surreal to think that this is probably my last dive,” Johnston said. “It was such a great moment because my family was there, my fiancé, my coach.… I just felt really loved and appreciated by everyone who helped me get to this point.”
Because of the U.S. swimming and diving team’s recent success in Rio, Johnston and her teammates were invited to the White House, where President Barack Obama congratulated them and several other Olympians on their accomplishments.
The White House trip capped off a whirlwind few months for the 26-year old.
“My favorite memory and my last memory from this Olympics was standing on the board in the finals and hearing ‘Abby Johnston representing the United States of America,’” Johnston said. “That feeling is just something you take so much pride in.”
At least for now, however, Johnston will push that pride aside and focus on her medical school endeavors.
But don’t count out one of Duke’s most decorated athletes just yet for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“Realistically, in a sport like diving, you need to make a really solid two-year run. If I take a break and dabble in competition for the next few years, I can ramp it back up in time for Tokyo, which fits with my school schedule,” Johnston said. “This is going to be a really nice Olympics. Maybe I want to go.”
Sam Turken and Brian Mazur contributed reporting.