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Minneapolis firefighter traveled the world as an international rugby player

Firefighter Kathryn Johnson settled into the normal life of firefighting after two World Cups and the 2016 Olympics


KJ Johnson practiced this week with the Rocky Mountain Experts.

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

By Jim Paulsen
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Minneapolis firefighter Kathryn Johnson needed a couple of days off this week.

Johnson, who goes by “KJ,” has a rugby league to support.

“I switched my 48-hour shift with a co-worker,” Johnson said. “And I’ve got a day off coming. But after that, I’m right back at it.”

Johnson, 31, is a rugby Olympian of 2016 vintage, and she brings that credibility into competition Saturday at TCO Stadium.

Johnson plays for the Rocky Mountain Experts, who will participate in the Premier Rugby Sevens Western Conference kickoff. It’s the first of three weeks of league play, counting down to the PR7s championships, Aug. 6 in Washington, D.C. Saturday’s schedule includes a series of matches, men’s and women’s, starting at 6 p.m.

For the past four years, Johnson has also been a firefighter and EMT for the Minneapolis Fire Department, settling into a more normal life after spending a decade crisscrossing the globe as an international rugby standout. Things have changed this much:

“I have a house in New Hope,” she said. “I try to be home as much as possible.”

Johnson, who graduated from Hopkins High School, has been a rugby player for as long as she can remember, the product of rugby-loving parents Daniel and Jennie Johnson. Fondness for the game was instilled when she followed her parents to all-day tournaments.

“It was so much fun and such a family thing, all of us little rugby kids running around,” Johnson said. “The first time I played rugby, it was a bunch of us kids playing. We convinced my dad to be our coach. We just had a really cool group of people around us.”

Johnson had a stint at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee after high school, until her rugby career burgeoned. She has since played in two rugby World Cups and was a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, where she made waves that still ripple in the rugby world with a devastating hit on a player from Australia.

It was a legal hit, and an aggressive one.

“The thing is, it’s not like in football,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of rules about how to tackle, like you can’t tackle above the shoulders. People think it’s more dangerous, but we’re not wrapped in bubble wrap, with pads all over. We’re not trying for big hits to hurt each other.”

She’s sometimes wowed by the doors rugby opened for her. Most supporters are curious about the high-profile tournaments, the World Cup and Olympics. She understands why, but she cherishes the personal connections.

“You come to realize that all the tournaments are kind of the same, with the same people on the same size field with the same rules,” she said. “It goes way beyond the rugby. It’s more about the rugby community and the things I’ve been able to be a part of.”

After the 2016 Olympics, Johnson recharged by taking six months to backpack around the globe. Another community entered her life.

“Everyone is so supportive of each other,” she said. “I made a few phone calls and right away I got three offers to stay with friends in places like Thailand, Tokyo and Australia. It was amazing.”

Johnson retired from international rugby after last summer’s Women’s World Cup in Auckland, New Zealand. She has followed her mother in becoming a firefighter, a job that rewards her with familiar camaraderie and the chance to push herself physically.

“You can get the same adrenaline rush, and it’s always different. You never know what you’re going to get,” she said. “And you get the chance to do more than you think you can. There are many times when you think you can’t do any more, but you really have so much more to give.”

She’s not stepping away from rugby for good, as her spot on the Rocky Mountain Experts indicates. The PR7s league — the 7 indicating the number of players on the field for each team — presents an opportunity for rugby to develop a foothold in the United States that has eluded it. Johnson’s next step in her rugby life is to be an advocate for the sport.

“There’s no glory for rugby in the U.S. yet,” she said.

She cites the gender equity the sport has achieved, with equal pay for men and women a fundamental part of the PR7s league’s mission. “It’s so empowering for women,” she said.

Johnson is excited to play near home Saturday, the first time that has happened on a big stage. Her parents will be there as usual, dressed in cow costumes, which has become their trademark.

Between weekends spent with her team, Johnson will resume her firefighter duties but also will dig into her latest passion project: developing a rugby league for women’s 15s, a more strategic game with 15 players per side. She feels the time for rugby in this country is ripe, considering the U.S. is scheduled to play host to the men’s Rugby World Cup in 2031 and the women’s in 2033.

“It’s a big venture and some people don’t see it, but numbers are growing and there’s a lot of excitement,” she said. “I’m very optimistic.”

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