Carrie Johnson is the United States' best hope for a kayaking medal in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
“She has been the best (American) female kayaker of our generation,” said Shaun Caven, former British National coach and director and head coach of Canoe/Kayak at the OKC High Performance Center.
Johnson, 28, of Chula Vista, Calif., became an Olympian for the third time Friday by winning the women's 500-meter kayak race in the Olympic Trials on the Oklahoma River. The victory earns her the lone American spot in the race in the London Olympics.
It will be the final time Johnson will represent her country in the Olympics. She plans to quit the sport after London since she has been accepted into the veterinary school at the University of California-Davis.
“Everything in my life has been organized around paddling since 2001,” Johnson said. “At some point, I am going to have to get a job and move on with my life.”
Johnson burst on the national kayaking scene in 2004 when she won the Olympic Trials in Oakland, Calif. She was such an unknown at the time that the public address announcer didn't even know her name.
“It wasn't something I had expected,” she said of the victory that sent her to her first Olympics. “I was just there to get experience and maybe make the World Cup team. It just worked out a lot better than that.”
Johnson became a paddler literally by accident. Johnson quit gymnastics after breaking her arm and was looking for another sport when she joined the San Diego junior lifeguard program. It also had a canoe and kayak team.
“I started out Saturday mornings just for fun,” she said. “Then I got into the competitive side of it.”
With Friday's victory, her resume now includes three consecutive Olympic Games, a gold medal in the 2011 Pan American games and a 10th place finish in the 2010 World Championships.
In the past two Olympics, Johnson narrowly missed making the finals, essentially finishing 10th in both Athens and Beijing. London will be her final opportunity for the Olympic medal she covets.
“She has a shot,” Caven said. “I am telling her she can win gold. If she hits everything right, there is no reason why not. I have seen this before. When guys know it is their last chance, they pull something out they have never done before. If you are in it, you got a chance.”
Johnson said an Olympic medal would be the pinnacle of her career, but even if one is never draped around her neck, she will leave the sport with no regrets.
“It's a big honor just to be there and be considered one of the top athletes in the world,” she said. “There will be some disappointment if I don't medal in London, but you have to walk away and be OK with that.
“I have gotten to travel all over the world. I have friends now from all over the world, which is pretty incredible, I think.”