Triathlon Magazine Canada



Paula Johnson

Toronto’s Paula Johnson might joke that she is the fittest, most unhealthy person you will ever meet, but there is actually some truth in her humour. Since beginning triathlon in 1999, she’s had life-changing upheavals in her health, but it has not dimmed Johnson’s positive attitude on life, or her love of the sport.

Last year alone was exceedingl­y difficult. “A profoundly challengin­g year,” she wrote on Facebook near the end of 2020, “which began with a full thickness hamstring rupture, being told my triathlon days were over … then COVID … and a breast cancer diagnosis … sounds pretty bad on the surface, but actually it’s been an incredible year … I am so grateful for the outpouring of support from friends, colleagues, neighbours and family.”

Originally from England, Johnson was recruited to be a registered nurse in Canada 30 years ago. She was inspired to try a sprint triathlon after hearing about them while working in a sports injury clinic. “I decided to get off the couch,” she says, “swam and ran for the first time in 20 years, trained for seven whole weeks, then did my first sprint, and I wasn’t last to the finish line.”

Johnson was really motivated when she started winning races. At 5'11", she first competed in the Clydesdale category, a special division for athletes with large builds, like the extraordin­ary horses of the same name. (The women’s category was sometimes referred to as Athena.) “I’m not sure I’d still be doing triathlon if I hadn’t had that group’s support in the early days,” she says. “It was the first time in sports that I felt really good about being athletic.”

Growing up, Johnson was among the kids

who were picked last for teams, and she was mocked for being plump. At age 14, a gym teacher called her “a lump of lard” and said Johnson would never amount to anything. Those words planted a seed – “not a very pleasant one” – that would sometimes pop into Johnson’s head and spur her on to prove the teacher wrong.

She reflects that without that unpleasant seed, she might not have done so well in triathlon. Despite being so hurt by the comments, kind-hearted Johnson took the high road and thanked that teacher years later with a bouquet of flowers and she says that gesture gave her a lifetime of letting go.

Now in the 55 to 59 age group, Johnson loves to mix up competitio­ns with everything from triathlons, duathlons and marathons. She has finished many Ironman races over the years including Kona, Penticton, along with three times each for Mont-Tremblant and Florida. Her very first Ironman was in 2004 in Lake Placid and she returned six more times however, a brain tumour prevented her from making it seven in a row.

The tumour created an excess of growth hormone, which affected Johnson’s joints and bones and led to osteoarthr­itis in her ankles. She was told she could no longer run and, while she does continue to be very athletic, Johnson is sensible about it in order to preserve her health.

In 2011, finding out three weeks before Ironman Canada that she couldn’t run, a coach suggested power walking, but it brought a lot of pain. Instead, she developed a modified glide inspired by cross-country skiing. Using the momentum of her upper body and swinging arms to power along, Johnson finished the marathon at Ironman Canada in under five hours.

Continuing to work on her new technique, Johnson was soon walking 30 km in less than three hours. A few months after Ironman Canada, she was having her best bike ever at Ironman Florida but, just 10 km from the cycle finish, another athlete crashed into her.

Her ankle swelled badly and yet, with the help of a cheering and caring crowd, and a good dose of endorphins and adrenaline, Johnson completed the race. “My passion for the sport definitely helps drive me forward and keeps me going,” she says. “It would have been a shame not to finish the race when I came so far to do it.”

By 2014 at Kona, her walking speed was up to a 52-minute 10 km. “My Ironman races that I’ve walked are often faster than the ones I ran,” says Johnson.

While it is hard to pick one race as the most memorable, Johnson mentions a Muskoka half-distance where she raced for “Team in Training.” Her mum had just been diagnosed with leukemia, and the competitio­n raised money for that disease. “It’s a different experience racing for something or someone else,” she says, “I highly recommend it to everyone.”

As a nurse in the cardiac and vascular surgery unit of a large hospital in Toronto, Johnson helps and cares for many people who are sick. She is also a positive influence on still more individual­s with the encouragem­ent and support she actively provides on social media and directly into the triathlon community.

Johnson’s ability to stay positive is quite remarkable, considerin­g all that she has been through. “I’ve had a few serious health problems over the last few years. A pesky hemorrhagi­ng brain tumour, Hashimoto’s thyroid disease, a serious concussion, countless broken bones,” she explains. And when there is a setback, one of the first things she asks a doctor is, “When can I swim, bike and run?”

As Johnson says, “You just have to be positive and keep going.” And when the very challengin­g year of 2020 rolled around, her positivity stuck: “It was a horrible, terrible, good year.”

As a frontline health-care worker, Johnson’s life changed dramatical­ly during the pandemic. “It has exhausted me beyond words and has been very stressful. The constant fear of exposure of COVID-19, short-staffing and caring for very sick patients have really taken a toll on the mental and emotional well-being of myself and my colleagues,” she explains.

Early in the year, while running to catch the bus to work, Johnson tripped and seriously injured her hamstring. “I know my hamstrings were both very tight from loads of riding and not enough stretching,” she recalls.

While recovering from the devastatin­g injury, Johnson’s weight went up and she began using the bathroom scales every day. In the bathroom’s mirrored walls, one day she noticed something different. There was a small dimple in her chest, which turned out to be breast cancer. “The hamstring injury was a blessing in disguise,” she says, because it led to the early discovery of her illness.

“The breast cancer diagnosis really made me evaluate what is important in life. Life is too short, and as the song goes, I’m here for a good time, not a long time,” quips Johnson. “Neighbours cooked and baked for me, and women who themselves had been diagnosed with breast cancer in the past offered me support and advice on how to get through the treatments and recovery, many from the triathlon community.”

Johnson also had super support from a guy she met online during the provincial lockdown. Just a few days after her cancer diagnosis, they met in person to have their first of many walks together. They got to know each other better while walking 600 km on 60 dates while keeping six feet apart and, he kept her company throughout her treatments.

Two years ago, household batteries caused a serious fire in Johnson’s home. With humour, she refers to it as “the best fire ever” because the resulting renovation­s were such an improvemen­t to her place. And her tumour is the “best brain tumour ever” because she got to travel around the world to speak at medical conference­s about her diagnosis.

“It is the story of my life,” she says, “Things that seemed disastrous happen but, in the end, everything turned out OK. I know that whatever comes in the future, I’ll be able to look at a challenge and believe everything will be OK. And that is only because of the practice I have had.”

“All have just made me really appreciate everything that I have, and what I’m able to do. I certainly don’t take anything for granted. Apparently, I have inspired many people to start doing triathlon and that makes me pretty happy,” she says.

And what about being told her hamstring injury means the end of triathlon? “If I was given a dollar for every time over the years I was told by a doctor or specialist that my triathlon and racing days were over, I’d be rich. I’m signed up for Ironman Florida this November,” she says. “Hopefully it will be safe to travel by then. I’d love to prove the doctors wrong again.”

“You just have to be positive and keep going.” When the very challengin­g year of 2020 rolled around, her positivity stuck: “It was a horrible, terrible, good year.”

Helen Powers is a freelance journalist from Dundas, Ont. She’s a regular contributo­r to Triathlon Magazine Canada.

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