The following is a two-part series detailing the rise of the Johnson sisters into elite endurance athletes and health and fitness professionals. Raised in the small town of Grampian, these young women have excelled in their own unique paths. But over the years, their bond continues to grow and sisterhood is an aspect that helps push each of them to continue becoming the best versions of themselves that they can be.
LANCASTER – In our lives, we all just want to find our stride. We want to feel whole and accepted by our loved ones and peers. We want to find our passions and live a life we can be proud of. For Grampian native Rebecca Johnson, she’s vowed to herself to leave nothing back in life.
Whether it be a move to the beach to begin her career in healthcare, running as an independent in cross country in high school, or even eventually training for hours to become a marathoner, Johnson continues to push the needle and fight for more. “I think my upbringing taught me to be grounded, work hard for what I want, and appreciate the simple things in life,” noted the Curwensville High School alum. “There was not a lot to do in Clearfield County, but growing up there allowed me to develop friendships that will last a lifetime.”
As a youngster, Johnson took a liking to basketball first as she played for St. Francis School in elementary and middle school and later the Lady Tide in high school. Running started a little later as it was a novel she read that first inspired her to give cross country and track and field a chance when she became old enough. The story of Wilma Rudolph from a young lady with polio to multiple-time Olympic gold-medalist was something that empowered her to start a running career of her own and she truly has never looked back.
While attending St. Francis, she had the opportunity to run cross country at Clearfield as a part of a co-op opportunity. Her coaches Todd Winters and John Jacob from middle school encouraged her to continue running and served as mentors throughout her middle and high school distance running careers. But when it came time for high school, a co-op between Curwensville and Clearfield cross country did not exist.
She competed as an independent runner and her parents, Barb and Mike, served as her official coaches. For those four years of cross country, she worked and made it worthwhile for her parents to help her every day improve her times, technique, and preparedness. When someone strings enough of those days together, the results speak for themselves. She was offered an opportunity to become a Division I athlete at nearby Saint Francis University as a cross country and track and field runner. While it was something she admits she did not expect, it was the perfect opportunity for her.
The opportunity to be a Division I athlete while studying to become a physician assistant is something pretty unique to Saint Francis. It was an institution she considered before she was awarded an opportunity to become a runner there because of the five-year fast-track physician assistant program. She could complete her five years and begin her career at just 23 years old as opposed to continuing on to medical school, which can take at a minimum of five years to complete. “After I circled back to Saint Francis again, I knew it was happening for a reason and it would be the right opportunity for me,” she said. “Loretto and Saint Francis will always be a special place to me.”
From the fall 2013 to the fall of 2017, Johnson competed for the Red Flash in cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field. She was a member of the 2016 Northeast Conference (NEC) championship cross country team and competed in the 800m run, 1600m run, and the steeplechase. Her career was a solid one for the Red Flash, but the stride she has hit beyond her cross country and track and field career is even more impressive.
Today, Johnson is on a quest to qualify and compete in the world’s six major marathons and she’s currently halfway through the mission. She’s competed in the three major ones in the United States in Boston, Chicago, and New York City and hopes she can compete in London, Berlin, and Tokyo to complete her tour. The challenge with competing in the international marathons is it is based upon a lottery system and it is highly competitive to earn the opportunity to run in those races. Despite long odds, it is something she continues to work towards completing and she does so with her favorite travel buddy, her father Mike.
“I’m so thankful my parents were there for me over all these years as a runner,” noted Johnson. “Traveling to these races with my dad is one of my favorite things in the world. All the memories together have been very special to me. I look forward to competing in Boston again in 2024 and am looking into some marathons out west for next year as well.”
After she completed her college career, Johnson knew that one day she wanted to complete a marathon. Similar to how she got started in running, it was a movie that inspired her to build up the endurance to run in a marathon one day. Since her first one, she’s been hooked and has built in training to be a considerable part of her daily life. She’s a member of two prominent running groups in Lancaster County and this group has plenty of members who have similar running and overall lifestyles as she does.
One of her top memories from not just as a marathoner but as a runner overall was winning her first marathon at Lake Wilhelm in an event her sister Vanessa also took part in. It likely will always remain one of the top memories the Johnson sisters share as they each continue their own decorated endurance athlete careers. “We are each so driven by our passions and had some amazing role models who showed us the importance of hard work. It’s special how many people care about us and love us., I feel especially fortunate to have a sister like Vanessa because she is the number one person who ‘gets’ most of the things that I go through.”
Similar to her older sister, she’s always been interested in health and is making a difference to help others get back to feeling like their old selves. Her professional career has also been exceptional since she got her start as a physician assistant, beginning in 2018. Her first two roles in healthcare were in Delaware in the Rehoboth Beach area before relocating to Pennsylvania a few years later. In October, she accepted her newest role as a physician assistant working at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health in Urgent Care. Just a few weeks into her new role, she’s enjoyed this new chapter of her career and is excited about what’s coming as she continues. Rebecca Johnson has worked tirelessly to serve others in her professional career and to become the best distance runner she can be. With incredible community and family support and a desire to learn and succeed, she’s been able to become an accomplished distance runner whose career has not even hit its peak yet. There are plenty of more voyages ahead alongside her dad as she works to complete the major marathon bucket list. For now, she’s focused on continuing to build camaraderie in her new role and get ready for the Boston Marathon scheduled for April 15, 2024.