For the past month, Northwest Georgia residents were glued to their television sets to watch and cheer on one of their own on the NBC reality-competition show, “The Titan Games.”
Haley Johnson, a first lieutenant in the Army and an active-duty nurse stationed at Fort Benning, competed on the show, which pitted hometown folks from different walks of life against some celebrity athletes in a series of grueling, physical events for a chance to become a Titan Games champion.
An LFO Class of 2012 graduate, Johnson said she received a message through social media from one of the show’s casting producers wanting to gauge her interest about being on the show, which later led to a phone call.
“At first, honestly, I wasn’t sure if it was something that was real with all the spam messages people get nowadays,” Johnson explained. “But sure enough, I got on a Skype phone call and then I did a Skype interview and then they had me go back and do the whole application process online. After that, they invited me to the in-person tryouts in Los Angeles.”
She said she was first contacted about the show in November and completed her paperwork, application and video calls less than a month later. She boarded a plane for California to attend the in-person combine the second week of January and filming for the show began a little over two weeks later.
Johnson, however, said ultimately deciding to try out for the show was a tough choice because her father, Jerry, had been hospitalized with an aggressive brain tumor.
“Whenever I got reached out to initially, there was a lot of questioning on my part because of what my family was going through,” she said. “(My father) had been diagnosed in September and the Army moved me to Georgia to be closer to my family in October and then (the process for the show) started in November.
“I think that there was almost guilt when I was first trying to make the decision and then I think my family is really what pushed me it go ahead and try for it because my dad loved these types of shows, like ‘American Ninja Warrior,’ ‘Survivor’ and whatever it might be that was like this. My family always thought I was perfect for a show like this, so it was something that he would have pushed me to pursue.”
Jerry passed away in mid-December, a little less than a month before filming began, giving his daughter even more inspiration and determination to make her father proud.
“In every step of the process, I kept thinking about how proud he was that I was doing it and how much I knew he believed I could make it and go pretty far on the show,” she added.
Johnson, who took AP courses at LFO, was a well-rounded high school athlete. She competed in a number of different sports during her prep career, including cross-country, cheerleading, volleyball and track, where she competed in the pole vault.
She was also in the school’s JROTC program and participated on the Raider Challenge Team, a popular athletic competition and the JROTC equivalent of college ROTC’s ultra-tough Ranger Challenge.
“I did a lot of different things trying to figure out my niche,” she explained.
She went on to Kennesaw State University where she walked on with the women’s lacrosse team and played for one semester, but the requirements for college ROTC, plus her pre-nursing studies, turned out to be too much on her plate and she ultimately decided to give up lacrosse.
However, she said she soon discovered weightlifting and body-building, which allowed her to maintain her competitive nature and athletic routine while sticking to her studies.
She said it wasn’t until halfway through her time in high school when she decided that a career in the military might be right for her.
“Probably for the first two years of high school, I honestly thought I would have never pursued (the) military after high school,” she said.
She credited 1st Sgt. Anthony Heath, one of the longtime instructors of LFO’s JROTC program, for helping her plan for college and beyond.
“He kind of took me under his wing,” she explained. “He knew that my family wasn’t the most well-off and knew that there was no one that could really help me pay for college and stuff like that.
“He showed me that ROTC actually offered a national scholarship. It was competitive to get, but he kind of walked me through the steps and helped me through that process and I ended up getting a full ride.”
Johnson recalled that when she was commissioned in December 2016, Heath drove to the ceremony at Georgia Tech to give her her very first salute.
“It was amazing,” she said.
Heath said he also remembers that day well.
“Me personally, I have never taken a day off from work, but when Haley asked me to come to her graduation to receive her salute, I said ‘yes’ without hesitation,” he said. “It is one of the highlights of my teaching career. As far as helping her with the ROTC scholarship, I would say that was all her doing. She made the grades, she put in the hard work and she earned it. She is a credit to her family and her community.”
Heath said that, as much as anything, he remembers the inner drive Johnson always showed to never give up.
“Haley is an amazing young lady and I was privileged and honored to be a part of her high school experience,” he continued. “From obstacle courses, creek crossings, rope bridges and looking for lost phones, she was never one to give up. The one word that I would use to sum her up is ‘persevere.’ Haley has the intelligence and physical determination to overcome any obstacle.
“I have a hundred stories and could write a book on the things Haley did in JROTC. She was and is an amazing person and I personally believe that she can do and accomplish any goal that she decides upon.”
Johnson’s Titan Games experience would see her compete in the East Region. Her first head-to-head matchup, which aired on July 13, was against Canada’s Cynthia Gauthier, a professional monster truck driver, to see who could navigate a series of hanging sections of chain-link fencing suspended in the air.
Johnson took the win and went on to face Hannah Teeter, an Olympic gold-medal winning snowboarder, in a physically punishing obstacle course called Mt. Olympus. Undaunted, Johnson powered through and beat Teeter before getting hugs from her mother and brother in the audience, along with one from the show’s creator and host, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
The megastar, whose own father recently passed away, even shared a touching exchange with Haley’s family after her victory.
A week later, she faced Mt. Olympus again, this time against professional wrestler Dasha Kuret and won in dominant fashion. However, on the July 27 episode, she went up against Courtney Roselle, a CrossFit coach and a former college basketball player, and was defeated on Mt. Olympus in a very close race.
She would get one final chance on the August 3 episode to win a spot in the East Region Finals, but in another tough challenge — a rematch against both Teeter and Kuret — Johnson finished third and was eliminated from the competition.
She explained that the events she competed in were even harder in person than they looked on TV.
“We were watching it (when it aired) for the first time with all of America,” she explained. “We hadn’t seen any of these scenes beforehand and some of these obstacles, I feel like, in my head, (I’m asking) why didn’t I just jump? Why didn’t I make that leap? And then I remember, in person, that leap was like 6 feet away from me. It almost looked easier when I was watching it than it actually felt in real life.
She said watching herself compete on TV was “absolutely nerve-wracking”, even though she already knew the outcome.
“Just seeing myself before I competed, my heart rate was elevated and I started getting sweaty feet and hands,” she said. “I don’t know why I got so nervous.”
Still, even though being crowned Titan Games champion wasn’t in the cards, Johnson called the experience “amazing” and “a lot of fun.”
“The people that they selected, the other athletes from all over America, were just like the best people that you’d want to spend 12 hours locked in a room with,” she explained. “There might have been one person that might have been a little standoffish, but all the rest of us, we still have a group chat today and they’ve already had a reunion. They are planning some more for August and November and we keep up with each other really closely.”
Life lessons learned
Johnson said she has heard a lot lately from old friends who watched the show.
“A lot of people from home reached out to me,” she said. “(There were) a lot of classmates talking about how amazing it was to see someone they actually knew competing and doing something like this. It’s been really neat.”
And through it all, Johnson said the entire experience has taught her some things to remember moving forward in life.
“I think more than anything, I’ve learned that no matter where you come from, no matter what your circumstances are that you grew up with, if you really want something, no matter how hard or far-fetched that it seems, that if you want to pursue an opportunity, you’re the one that’s going to make it happen,” she added. “I’ve learned that nothing is off the table at this point. The possibilities are really endless. It’s just up to you as a person and how hard you will work to reach it.”