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Opponents Beware: Inherited Willow Johnson The Left Arm of Her Father

Randy Johnson, daughter of the Hall of Fame pitcher, is part of an effort to bring women's professional volleyball to the United States.

Willow Johnson learned at a young age about the sacrifice and dedication needed to compete at the highest level of sports, as the daughter of a Hall of Fame baseball player.

Her father, the left-handed pitcher Randy Johnson, demonstrated that he rarely took time off from perfecting his craft over a brilliant 22-year career. But rarely did his career ask him to travel farther than Canada.

An elite volleyball player, Willow Johnson, didn't have that luxury. Until recently, in the United States, there was no pro women's league, forcing her overseas to discover opportunities to play professionally. Last summer, in one of the world's top women's leagues, she went to western Turkey to be the right-side hitter for Nilufer Belediyespor, where the expectations for players are just as demanding as those in professional baseball.

In almost every way, from the language and food to the sheer intensity of the volleyball itself, it was a culture shock. It could be a challenge just to buy groceries. Although the season did not begin until September, in late June Johnson, 22, was required to be in Nilufer to start a two-month preseason, and most of her time there was consumed by volleyball and more volleyball, every day, all day long. Then she went home alone and, the next day, repeated the cycle.

Willow Johnson is part of a new professional volleyball league at the Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas that will play all its first season games.
Willow Johnson is part of a new professional volleyball league at the Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas that will play all its first season games.

She said in a recent telephone interview with her father, "If I had a bad day in court, I would go back to my apartment and there was nothing I could get away with," she said. Communicating with my family back home was difficult with the time difference, and that took a toll on me as the season went on. The mental aspect is truly difficult.

Johnson eventually left Turkey and returned home to Arizona, in need of both a mental and physical break. But now she is finally getting a chance to compete in her own country professionally. She will join a new professional volleyball league later this month, the only one in the United States for women.

The venture, organized and run by Athletes Unlimited, a company that is also starting professional lacrosse and softball leagues, is sanctioned by the U.S.A. Volleyball and will feature 44 top players from five countries, including national team members. In a compact schedule that runs from Saturday to March 29, all matches will be played at Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas for the first season.

It's really important that female athletes begin to get as much attention from social media and TV as they can possibly," she said." I really feel honored to be able to play in my country of origin. I want to help something grow and look back 20 years from now and say, 'Yeah, I was on that first team.'

Volleyball has thrived in the nation, despite the absence of a professional league in the United States. More than 450,000 girls played high school volleyball in 2019, second only to track and field, and the numbers for the sport rose in each of the previous seven years, according to an annual report by the National Federation of State High School Associations. According to a study by the N.C.A.A., volleyball at the college level trailed only soccer, softball and track and field during the same period.

Johnson, center, is part of Athletes Unlimited, a company that is also starting professional lacrosse and softball leagues, created by a new pro league.
Johnson, center, is part of Athletes Unlimited, a company that is also starting professional lacrosse and softball leagues, created by a new pro league.

Johnson played high school volleyball in Arizona, joined an elite travel club team there, and then played at the University of Oregon for four years, where she finished ninth with a .272 hitting percentage in program history. There were 1,011 murders and 1,165 career points for her.

She has a devastating overhand strike at 6-foot-3 with a powerful left hand inherited, in part, from her father, as well as the required jumping ability prized by the top hitters of the game. But she also knows how to find the floor with a deft, softer touch, just like her father, who used off-speed pitches with as much effect as his electric fastball.

Johnson and her famous father, particularly in competition, bear a striking resemblance. They're both tall, imposing athletes. Both wield a lethal left arm, apparently built to unleash fury on opponents, and when competing, both have a fiery side. The similarities have long been apparent to Willow, who took time to watch her father's video highlights that strengthened her own memories.

She said, "I'm sure you've heard my dad was a very intimidating person." I saw the clips where someone would strike out and point up and scream. I am doing something similar. Not that I'm just trying to replicate it. But if it's time for the game, it's time for the game, and nothing else matters.

His health was prioritized by Randy Johnson throughout his career. That helped lead the Yankees to a 205-inning season when he was 422.
His health was prioritized by Randy Johnson throughout his career. That helped lead the Yankees to a 205-inning season when he was 422.

Wherever she played, her father was often in the stands, trying his best to blend in with the parents of other players rooting for their daughters, even at 6-10 and known to millions of sports fans. Although he is also an accomplished photographer, Johnson said that because he wanted to absorb the whole event and not be "blinded by a lens," as he put it, or bring attention to himself, he did not take his camera to his children's sporting events.

Yeah, I do get acknowledged, but I'm just there to support her and her mother," he said." "I'm just a proud dad sitting, like all the other dads, in the bleachers. We're sitting there, talking and laughing and watching.

In their efforts, athletic and otherwise, Johnson said he always worked to support Willow and her siblings, while leaving space for them to determine their own destinies. As long as they followed their passions, he said, if they chose to move on from a sport, so be it. But, based on his own experience as a professional athlete, there is one issue that he will "nag" Willow about: her health.

Volleyball, especially for hitters' knees and shoulders, is a physically demanding sport with constant jumping, hitting and diving to the floor. Many professional leagues, such as the one in Turkey, are renowned for their grueling practices that players can wear for their durability.

Randy Johnson never played volleyball, so he was unable to advise his daughter about positioning, footwork, or technique, but until he was 46, he pitched. In 603 starts, he won 303 games and led all baseball in innings pitched twice. He threw at least 200 innings 14 times, including 205 in 2006 at the age of 42 for the Yankees, and tossed 100 full games. Without health and durability, those numbers are unattainable.

Willow wields a lethal left arm like her father, seemingly built to unleash fury on opponents.
Willow wields a lethal left arm like her father, seemingly built to unleash fury on opponents.

He spent several more hours doing strengthening exercises and icing his shoulder for every inning Johnson pitched to ensure that when called upon, he made it to the mound, and Willow said she saw enough of it, even at home, for it to sink in. His pitching motion may be different from her overhead slam, but one fundamental similarity exists at their core.

Her left shoulder is bread and butter," Johnson said, "just like it was mine. So you have to take care of it for yourself.

Willow Johnson is in training for the new season in Dallas. She was healthy, refreshed and ready to play, she said. Eventually, she hopes to go back overseas and get a spot on the national team of the United States one day.

In the meantime, she hopes that at the grass-roots level, the league will tap into the popularity of the sport and create a viable option for the best female volleyball players in the United States to make a living at home, similar to women's basketball, and similar to her father.

"The W.N.B.A. is building their audience, and I hope we can do the same," she said, "and with some of the best players in America, build this program."