Rosie Johanson (Vancouver, British Columbia), a redshirt junior on the Virginia women’s tennis team, returned to the lineup this season after missing the 2018-19 campaign due to injury. Hoos Life caught up with her to talk about the process to come back from the injury and how that experience has helped her lead her team as a captain during the shortened 2019-20 season.
Q: You had a strong freshman season and followed it up with an even stronger sophomore campaign. Can you just kind of sum up what it was like for you the first two years and what was going well for you as a competitor that led to your success?
Johanson: I honestly think my teammates in general. Over my four years, we have gotten closer every year. Coming from juniors it’s pretty lonely in tennis. That first season on a team was a lot of fun for me and I really enjoyed it. My second year we were a little more integrated as a team and I think that helped my success. Meghan (Kelley) was a big part of that. I really looked up to her as a player and a leader. She really helped me.
Q: You then had an injury; can you talk about what happened?
Johanson: In the spring of my second year, we were at Boston College in January and I felt my back get tight. I told the trainer and didn’t think much of it and kept playing through it. It wasn’t really holding me back or anything, it was just a little odd. It persisted and didn’t get better, so they said let’s get an X-Ray. It came back with a crack in my vertebrae and a pinch nerved from a bulging disc. The nerve wasn’t much of an issue at that time and they told me I could play though it and I wouldn’t make it worse. The injury didn’t get any worse, but the pain did continue to get worse.
I had to get cortisone injections to slow down the inflammation and took a week off in the middle of the season when we were playing Michigan to try to help it. Toward the end of the season, we got to a point where I got weakness in my left leg and an MRI showed that my disc was bulging to the point of pinching my nerves. In the last regular-season match of the season my leg completely gave out on me and that’s when I decided to stop and take time off before the ACC Tournament. I didn’t play at ACCs, but I did play at NCAAs and we lost in the second round. I then decided to take time off and let it heal.
Q: What led to going from the approach of rest to taking the step to surgery?
Johanson: My main doctor was awesome and he had the approach of never wanting to perform surgery on a 20-year-old, so whatever we can do to avoid that is what we’ll do. I took it conservatively for six months and didn’t play from May until November or December and tried to get stronger in my core. But, whenever I would play there would be pain again and it was affecting my ability to get out of bed and even tie my shoes. It took a long time and by that point I decided I was going to have to have surgery. I got a second opinion and they said the same thing. My doctor told me I had to go into surgery with the understanding I may never play tennis again at this level, but at that point my focus was on the rest of my life. Tennis seemed very miniscule at that point and I wanted to be able to live a full life with my family the rest of my life.
Q: What was the rehab experience like? What sort of things did you have to do to try to get your mobility back and prepare to come back to the court?
Johanson: Even though they told me I may never play tennis again, that wasn’t really an option for me. I am very stubborn and I told my mom and our athletic trainer, Craig, I was playing tennis after this. I was out of the hospital three days later, but I couldn’t walk and could barely stand. I could walk to the bathroom, but that was about it. It was painful just standing up. Every day I just tried to do a little more.
After a spinal fusion you are supposed to be very sedentary, but walking was something I was always trying to do. Then it was just months and months of working on strengthening back up. I didn’t travel much with the team, but we had a workout plan for me with a lot of swimming and core work. Coming into that next spring of 2019, I was able to get back into the gym. I had to learn how to work out again. Even running was completely foreign to me at the time. In June, I hit my first tennis ball six months later, but they had told me it would be at least a year. I was stubborn and went back out there, but I haven’t had any pain since then.
Q: What was it like as a junior watching the team compete while you rehabbed? What sort of things did you do to stay involved even though you couldn’t be on the court?
Johanson: It was painful to watch and not be able to play, but I had to keep myself involved somehow. I went to literally every practice – even practices that weren’t “mine”. I would sit at the courts for sometimes up to four hours. I would pick up balls. The coaches asked if I wanted to basically be Meghan (Kelley’s) coach and I would watch matches and film with her. I would work on the court with her at times. I also wrote a book – almost like a team manual – that has a lot of different information. I did it to help myself at first, but the team wanted to use it this season and that’s been kind of cool because they said it helped them. But I was going stir crazy.
Q: You returned to the lineup this year, but worked your way back in slowly throughout the fall? What was it like to step back on the court for the first time in a competitive situation?
Johanson: I was terrified. A lot of emotions were going through me. So many people had drilled into my brain that playing tennis again would just be the cherry on top. Not having pain was the main goal, but playing tennis again at this level was the cherry on top. It was exciting, but very nerve-wracking. I knew I’d put in the work and hours in the gym, so it helped to start slower. I began with doubles and just a set at the time. The coaches were very cautious with my time. My first action was just one match at our fall invitational, so it was slow.
Q: You had a big win, defeating fourth-ranked Alexa Graham of UNC as the fall season wound down. What did that mean to you and how did it feel to get a win like that after all you had been through?
Johanson: It really boosted my confidence. I expect high things of myself, but that was something special. It was not expected. The morning I found out I was playing Alexa Graham, I thought “oh here we go.” It proved to me that my hard work had paid off and I made the right decision.
Q: The season was cut short this spring due to the Covid-19 outbreak. What did it feel like to have another season taken away so suddenly?
Johanson: It was heartbreaking. We were in Orlando (preparing for a match against Northwestern) at the time. We have three seniors who are all players I came in with and it was heartbreaking to see their season or their careers end like that. It was also heartbreaking for the team because we had done so well and gotten so close as a team. We were on the border of consistently being a top-10 team, which was something we had aspired to all season. We set a lot of goals prior to the season and we had met all of them by that point. It was a special season for us, so that was kind of devastating.
Q: You’re a team captain. Having been through a situation where you suddenly weren’t able to compete, did that experience help you with this one and has it helped you provide leadership or guidance to your teammates this spring?
Johanson: I think one thing we’ve really tried to focus on is staying close and connected. We’re from all over the continent and the world, so everyone is in a different situation. Being connected and staying connected is important in these times. Staying connected with your teammates keeps you connected with your sport. That’s something I tried to do when I was going through surgery and rehab. I tried to check in on my teammates and take on that leadership role when I was off the court. I’ve really tried to encourage that in my teammates in this time, too.
Q: What are you doing right now in the time you would normally be closing out the season and getting ready for the ACC and NCAA Tournaments? How are you staying busy and how has the online course experience been?
Johanson: Coming into this no tennis scenario and the whole world on hold, I thought I would have a lot of time. It’s hard to schedule out your days when you’re used to people scheduling things out from class to practices. It’s been a pretty difficult adjustment for me because I like to always be doing things. I’ve tried to stay busy. I like to read and have been reading a lot of psychology type books. I’ve been watching lots of tv. We have workouts we can do from our strength coaches with some plans that we can choose to follow – so I’ve been doing twice-a-day workouts.
Classes are different and zoom calls can be long and difficult sometimes with Wi-Fi. Our professors have done such a good job transitioning in such short notice. I give a lot of credit to them because all of my professors have been outstanding in that regard.
Q: The team had a strong start to this spring and had several wins over nationally-ranked competition. How do you feel you personally and as a team are positioned for next season?
Johanson: I think we are only going to go up from here. We had a really great start and we’re hungry for more. Hopefully that hunger carries over to next year and our incoming first-years will be an outstanding addition to our team. We’ve built a great culture with (head coach) Sara (O’Leary) and Pichi (assistant coach Gina Suarez-Malaguti) and that’s been really helpful and exciting coming into the next season. Personally, there is a lot of room for growth. This wasn’t my best season performance wise, but I’ve learned a lot and hope to look back and reflect on this season and be better for the next one.
Q; You’re from Vancouver, but you stayed here in Charlottesville during this time. Can you talk about that decision? How has that been and how have you stayed in contact with your family?
Johanson: At first it was up in the air whether I would go home or not. Virginia and Charlottesville have been a safe place to be in this time. Traveling seemed more dangerous at the time, especially going back to my parents. I was concerned for their safety. They’re fine and we stay connected. I call them every day and we FaceTime. They’re still working and staying busy, so they’re doing fine.
Q: Is there anything you would say to UVA fans right now?
Johanson: Hang in there. It’s tough times and things are a little scary right now. Reach out to people. I try to reach out to my teammates, friends and family. Everyone is in a different and difficult situation. Hang in there and together we will get through this.