It’s completely fitting that Carol Ann Johnson was nominated for the Spry Inspiration Awards by a neighbor. After all, Carol Ann has devoted the majority of her 75 years to supporting the health and fitness of the folks in her Palmyra, Mo., community.
A tennis, track and cheerleading coach and physical education teacher, Carol Ann was instrumental in getting tennis courts built in the local park of her town of 4,000 near the Missouri-Illinois border. “Tennis is a lifelong sport,” says the grandmother of three. “It’s one thing to play basketball and football, but you can’t keep those things up. Tennis is something you can carry with you.”
And that’s not just talk. Carol Ann continues to hit the courts herself, sometimes with former students who were inspired by her to pick up the sport. She also practices yoga and Pilates, and cycles 15 miles most days—often with husband Bill. At age 71, Carol Ann rode the Katy Trail—at 225 miles, the longest rail-trail route in the U.S.—in five days. She’d attempted it the year before, but crashed her bike 14 miles from her destination the first day, leaving her body banged up, but her spirit intact.
“I’ve always tried to be a participator, not just a spectator,” she explains. “I’ve tried to practice what I preach.”
When Carol Ann was a teenager in the late 1940s, Title IX wasn¨Ìt even a blip on the equality radar. As a teenager, she went to one of only a couple of Missouri schools where women were allowed to play sports. When she headed to Missouri State for college (now Truman State in Kirksville, Mo.), she knew exactly what career path she would take. “In high school, we had a female physical education coach,” Carol Ann says. “She was a really learned woman. I wanted to be like her.”
What Carol Ann wants, Carol Ann gets. Just ask her friend Jean Lewis, who worked with Carol Ann to raise money to build the community tennis courts. “If she’s after something, watch out!” Jean says. The two ran many charity tournaments to raise money for cancer awareness. “Carol Ann is a wonderful civic servant,” Jean adds. “She’s inspired many young people.”
And she continues to do so. “Carol Ann does not have the word old in her outlook,” says neighbor Mary Lenzini in her nominating essay. At an age when sensible shoes are the norm, Carol Ann can still rock a pair of 4-inch heels with her skinny jeans, despite two knee surgeries, for which she typically wears braces during her weekly tennis matches. She seems astonished, though, at all the accolades and attention for her accomplishments. “All I have tried to do is promote fitness in my small corner of the world,” she says. “I’m just one little person.”