Freshman swimmer Payton Johnson started because of her family. But when it came time to choose a college, she did it all on her own.

Morgan Morel
Freshman Payton Johnson shocked her family in Illinois when she decided to attend Michigan. The choice has paid off for both her and the Wolverines. (CAITLIN KLEIBOER/Daily)

Johnson grew up in a family of swimmers – the youngest of three – and was just following her sister Rachel and brother Peir when she first hopped in the water. At age five she began swimming for a country club in her hometown of Champaign.

Both older siblings later swam for Northwestern, so it seemed natural that the youngest Johnson would follow suit and become a Wildcat as well. Or she could have stayed in her hometown to swim for Illinois. But in the end, she enrolled somewhere no one expected or even really understood. Even Johnson can’t explain why, instead of purple or orange, her swim cap is now maize and blue.

“I don’t really know how I ended up at Michigan,” Johnson said. “At least I stayed in the Big Ten. This was the best place for me, I felt.”

Michigan coach Jim Richardson first met Johnson when she came to look at Michigan as a potential school. Immediately, Richardson was impressed with the bubbly high- school senior.

“At that visit, I thought ‘Boy, has she really got a great effervescent, outgoing personality,’ ” Richardson said. “That was really evident the first time I sat down with her.”

That dynamic personality helps when it’s time to get down to business in the pool.

“You’re talking about a bundle of positive energy,” Richardson said. “She is just full of energy. Positive. Upbeat. She just pours herself into everything that she does completely, and she doesn’t hold back.”

On a team that is no stranger to hard work, Johnson fits in well. Many first-year swimmers struggle in their first year of collegiate competition, but Johnson has made adapting look easy.

Her best event has been the 100-yard butterfly – an event she won three times at the Illinois high school championships.

It didn’t take her long to find the first-place spot in college either. Overcoming the first career-meet jitters, Johnson won the 200-yard IM in the season kickoff against California, another school she considered attending.

Though she mostly competes in the butterfly, Johnson has also made her presence known by swimming freestyle on several key relay teams.

But Johnson doesn’t want spectators to be fooled by her fast times and many wins. Her seemingly smooth transition from high school to college has not been without struggle, especially when workouts have been rough.

“It’s definitely been hard for me to adjust because everything here is faster-paced and harder,” Johnson said. “But the girls definitely help me out. I’ve done things here that are harder than I could have ever imagined. But somehow we always get through it and we do well. It’s been fun and good – but definitely not without the hardships.”

Fortunately for Johnson, when times get tough, she can rely on her support system back home in Illinois. And who better to help with the stresses of swimming than fellow swimmers?

“I can call anybody in my family, and they know exactly what I’m going through,” Johnson said. “They’ve done it. They’ve been there. They’ve gone through the hard academics and gone through the hard training. It’s actually really helpful. Some people would think it’s annoying, but I really appreciate it.”

With the support of her family, team and coaches, Johnson doesn’t seem to be slowing down soon. And as the Big Ten Championships loom closer on the calendar, she will be able to put a flourish on an already outstanding first season.

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