Kiya Johnson says laser-focused LSU is ready for regionals “…we know that we’re going to do our gymnastics when we need to.”

Kiya Johnson says laser-focused LSU is ready for regionals “…we know that we’re going to do our gymnastics when we need to.”

By Megan Roth

After tearing her Achilles tendon early in the 2023 season, LSU graduate student Kiya Johnson has made an incredible comeback in her fifth year, competing in the All-Around in the majority of meets, helping LSU finish the regular season ranked second in the NCAA, and leading the Tigers to LSU’s first SEC Championship win since 2019.

Coming into this season, Johnson’s biggest personal goal was to get back to competing in the All-Around to contribute to her team, and in LSU’s second meet of the season, she did just that. Just one week later and a year after her injury, Johnson competed floor in LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center (PMAC) for the first time since the Tigers’ final home meet of the 2022 season, which she named as one of her favorite moments of her career. In 2023, Johnson’s Achilles tear took place at Kentucky, but one year later, competing against Kentucky at home, Johnson returned to the floor lineup as LSU’s final competitor and scored a 10.0 to secure the win for her team. Talk about full circle!

Many fans were surprised to see Johnson competing all four events so early in the season but Johnson explained that her recovery timeline was flexible. “We didn’t have a specific timeline or anything at the beginning of the year,” she said. “I just did my rehab and got back into the gym as the doctor allowed me to, so there was no specific timeline. I felt really good towards the end of the fall and had put all of my routines together so that went into the decision of doing All-Around so early in the year.”

Now entering the postseason, Johnson is feeling good about her health. “There’s always end of season aches and pains that everybody goes through,” Johnson said. “Overall, I feel really good compared to previous years where I would be nervous about my achilles or having more achilles pain than normal.”

As they head into regionals, LSU’s victories at SECs and throughout the regular season bring the team a layer of confidence, but the Tigers know how intense the competition will be postseason and are laser-focused in their preparation. In Johnson’s mind, SECs was not a perfect meet. She sees places for improvement in herself and knows the same is true for her teammates. This motivates her, knowing LSU hasn’t peaked heading into elimination meets.

Here’s more from Kiya!

In the preseason, a lot of fans were really excited about LSU, with gymnasts coming back from injury as well as freshmen and transfers coming in. How did you manage that and stay in your own zone?

That was something we talked about in the fall on our retreat when we got together before the season. We talked about staying in our own zone and staying in our bubble. We knew that outside people or outside factors have expectations for us to do some great things, but we focused on each other and focused on trying to build eachother up through the preseason and I think throughout the season, we’ve shown that we’ve stuck to us and not let any outside factors or voices infiltrate what we’re trying to do. 

What were the team’s goals and talking points going into SECs and how do you feel like the meet went?

Our main goal was to win SECs. That was a goal that we set at the beginning of the year. Our mindset going in was just to do our normal. We kind of feel like we’ve found a recipe that works for us. Later on in the season, we’ve had some success and we just wanted to stick to our normal and not make the meet more than it needs to be and just go out there and have fun.

Now that the meet’s over, I think we did just that. It was a great competition. It wasn’t perfect from start to finish, but we stayed together and again, just had a lot of fun throughout the whole meet.

What did it feel like closing out SECs on floor and getting the trophy handed to your team?

That was probably one of the top three feelings I’ve ever had. It was super exciting. I knew the meet was really close. I didn’t know if we had already clinched the win before I went or not, so I just wanted to go out there and do the routine that I could. The crowd was amazing. We had a lot of LSU fans down in New Orleans. That moment was really special and just really exciting. Getting the trophy was also super exciting and a little surreal. It was something that everybody on this team has dreamed of. To have it finally happen was really cool. 

Is your team’s mindset going into the postseason any different than it was earlier in the season or this time last year?

I think our mindset is pretty much the same, just sticking to our normal. We’ve continued to just build our confidence and consistency, week in and week out. That’s worked for us the last couple of weeks of the regular season, so we want to keep that going into regionals: just be confident in ourselves like we have been and just do our normal gymnastics, not trying to go out there and be perfect or do super crazy things. We just want to go out there and do the things we do in the gym everyday because we know that’s going to be enough.

I think last year, we were kind of just in survival mode at this point. We had a lot of injuries happen and a lot of sickness happened in some crucial times. I think last year was more about making it through and making it to the end. This year, we have a lot more confidence and a lot more depth that we can use if anything happens, so I think we’re in a much better spot this year.

Earlier in the season, your home scores were higher than your away scores. Is that something the team talks about and how are you hoping to replicate those high-scoring meets in the postseason?

It’s not really something that we talked about much. Jay [Clark] and all of our coaches like for us to focus on the things that we can control. Judges’ scores, whether that be at home or away, are out of our control so we don’t focus on it that much. We’ve competed really well in the PMAC and at SECs, which was in New Orleans, so it’s just about sticking to our normal and what’s worked for us and competing at the same level when we approach these postseason meets.

How will you channel the energy your home crowd brings into postseason meets?

Competing in the PMAC is a feeling like no other. The fans are super invested in us and in the sport of gymnastics. They make that environment so fun to compete in and so exciting to compete in. Going along with that, we know we can’t bring every single LSU fan to every single meet, so we really try to create that same type of energy within our team on the floor to kind of mimic that feel and feel like we’re competing at home.

What do you think are some of your team’s strongest points right now?

I think our team is super confident in our gymnastics and that’s just because of the preparation we did in the fall and how we’ve continuously grown throughout the season, so I think our team is just super confident in everything that we’re doing right now. I feel like every event is getting better week to week. Obviously floor has been a super strong spot for us this whole season and SECs was like that as well. 

What’s it like to train and compete with the #1 floor team in the nation and how does it feel to anchor than lineup?

It’s so fun. Shoutout to our coach Courtney [McCool-Griffeth]. She helps us so much with our consistency, our confidence, our passes, and even in our dance. Competing at the end of that lineup is amazing. I always say it’s super easy for me to go out there and do my job because I have five people that are going to go in front of me that are going to do amazing floor routines, so my job is easy. The floor team is super special, even the people that haven’t even gotten into lineups, they’ve been working hard and their floor routines look great. It’s been really cool and special to be a part of this year’s team as a whole.

What are some areas you’ve seen growth in yourself and in your team through the season?

I think for me personally, I’ve seen growth in my confidence. I guess I was a little bit nervous coming out of the Achilles injury about competing and trying to get back to the same level that I was at. Week in and week out, I have continued to build my confidence which has been cool to see. As far as the team goes, I think the same thing: our confidence each week has grown in ourselves and in each other. This team trusts eachother so much, which is cool to be a part of in those big moments and weeks. Everybody trusts each other and we know that we’re going to do our gymnastics when we need to.

Looking to regionals, what are your team’s goals?

Our goal is to kind of stick to what’s been working for us and go out there and do our normal gymnastics. All of the regionals are pretty tough and that’s how it’s been the last couple of years. We don’t want to focus on who we’re competing against. It’s just focusing on trying to do our best like we’ve done the whole season.

Looking back at your career, what have been some of your favorite moments?

Definitely, the Kentucky meet [this year], getting back on floor. That was a really cool moment for me, just coming out of the injury and competing in the PMAC. That was something I really missed last year and it was something I was looking forward to. Doing that first floor routine back in the PMAC was really exciting for me. Another meet that stands out to me, other than SECs and winning SECs, that was amazing, was the podium meet a couple of weeks before SECs. It was just super fun and our team was super excited and just had a great time. I just made a lot of memories that night with my team, like I have every meet. One of the coolest memories that I have from all four years was actually last year’s regionals, where we tied with Michigan. It was just a crazy situation and scenario that doesn’t happen often. To come out on top, that was a really cool moment. I know not just me, the whole team, it was crazy. 

To finish with a question we’re sure everyone is asking you: COVID and your injury mean you have a sixth year of eligibility. Is that something you’ve thought about taking advantage of?

I’ve definitely thought about it, but as of right now, I’m just trying to take it day by day and stay in the present. This team has so much potential and is so talented and I don’t want to think too far in the future and kind of miss what’s going on right now. I’m trying to take it day by day and stay present and in the moment and I think that will be a decision that I think about a little bit more in April.

LSU will compete against Minnesota, Oregon State, and the winner of Boise State vs. BYU at 8pm ET on April 4th. If they finish in the top two, the Tigers will advance to the regional final at 6pm ET on April 6th to compete for one of two spots to NCAA nationals in Fort Worth, Texas. 

For the full regionals schedule and how to watch, click here!

Photo credit: Georgia Jones | LSU Athletics Photography 

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