Growing up in Muncy, a borough of about 2,500 people located off the Susquehanna River in north-central Pennsylvania, Morgan Johnson was a small girl in a small town who had big dreams.
Although she stands just 5-foot-3, Johnson had dreamed since sixth grade about earning a college scholarship for her ability in the pole vault. Today, the high school junior can sail cleanly over barriers nearly double her height, but when she first started working toward her goal, she had a hard time getting any respect. “I was 75 pounds soaking wet as a sixth grader,” Johnson says. “In school I was picked on for being small and having glasses and braces. I also was very quiet.”
That all started to change during the summer before her seventh grade year—the first year she could attend Muncy Junior-Senior High School. That’s when her father convinced her to start lifting weights at the school gym. Following a 3-day-a-week plan, with a few runs here and there, Johnson got noticeably stronger within two months. She says, “after a year I was like, ‘holy crap.’”
During basketball practice that year, Johnson jumped higher than all of her teammates. Occasionally doing running drills with the varsity, she found she could keep up with or pass nearly all of the older players. By the end of the year, she had gained 10 pounds of muscle.
“I could bench just as much as some of the older football players,” says Johnson. “Some people didn’t take it very well—they thought girls weren’t supposed to lift. So I started getting the name ‘Morga-man.’”
The people who gave her the hardest time were her classmates, kids around her age. But then two things happened. Johnson had bonded with some of the older football players she lifted with (and in some cases, out-Benched). If someone threw a rude comment her way, one of her workout friends let that person know that the comment was not welcome.
“A lot of the older boys started protecting me,” Johnson says. “A couple of the boys tracked down the kids who were saying that, and stopped the issue.”
Second, when the season started, Johnson’s performance spoke for itself. She’s a three-sport athlete, playing tennis and basketball and running track, all at the varsity level. She made it to Districts with her pole vaulting skills, and last year, as a sophomore, she came within inches of making it to State.
“I started doing really well in sports, and everybody was like, ‘whoa, the one we used to call a nerd and thought was weird turned into one of the most popular kids in school,’” Johnson says.
Having cleared 10 feet in competition, Johnson has her sights set on 10-foot-6 or higher this season. On Sundays, she drives two hours to Harrisburg, to a place where she can practice and perfect her pole vaulting technique. Another goal is to grab the attention of coaches at in-state schools like Penn State and Bucknell.
To realize her dream, Johnson is keeping up with her training routines. She can Bench, Squat and Deadlift a total of over 600 pounds, and she participates in regular CrossFit workouts. She’s also putting in work in the classroom, currently holding a 4.0 GPA.
Johnson now strives to make sure that other kids in her school get treated with the respect she wasn’t always fortunate enough to receive. She says, “I try not to strike anybody down because I know how it feels. People who bully other people, I have no respect for. I value hard work and effort. People who sit around and criticize others need to get up and do something.”