FORT BENNING, Ga. – 1st Lt. Haley Johnson knows how to bring a gentle touch to working with newborn babies at the Army hospital here, but she's also a devoted athlete.
And when she brought her athletic skills to national television recently, audiences saw that the otherwise gentle Soldier nurse was also a blazing force of nature.
Johnson, 26, is a registered nurse assigned to the mother/baby unit of Fort Benning's Martin Army Community Hospital, but she appeared recently on NBC's "The Titan Games," hosted by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. She was in segments that aired four Mondays in a row, July 13, 20, 27, and Aug. 3.
The competition centers on "Mount Olympus," a grueling succession of obstacles that rises in height to a peak, with more obstacles on the way down the other side, followed by dragging a 200-pound ball by its chain, then using a sledgehammer to break through slabs of concrete to pull out a big key-like object and bring it first to the finish, insert it in a slot, and turn it counterclockwise.
And Johnson, who's been a standout athlete since high school – pole vaulting, body building, volleyball, cross-country, as well as cheerleading for the football team – has not just stayed fit, she's stayed Army fit, not only keeping up her body building on her own but making the most of Fort Benning's fitness facilities, including a gym and an obstacle course.
She stands 5 feet 3 1/2 inches and weighs on average a muscular145 pounds.
In "The Titan Games," her agility, speed, stamina and sheer strength dazzled audiences, and had The Rock, in a play on their shared last name, praising her on camera as "Johnson strong."
For one of the Mount Olympus events, she, wearing black, competed with an athlete named Dasha Kuret, in red.
Two cast members provided running commentary:
"And Haley's the first to reach the Box Flip. She needs to get – wooah – to get enough leverage, but no problem for Haley! She's heading up, and on, to the Iron Ascent...Ooohhh, and look at Dasha, she was struggling a little bit in the initial lift there for the Box Flip but managed to conquer it...Up ahead though you got Haley Johnson, who is shredding through the Iron Ascent. Dasha's just starting her way up. She needs to get going because look at Haley go! She's not slowing down, at all...
"We saw how impressive Haley was last week when she fought through two grueling challenges. And then beat Olympic gold medalist Hannah Teter, here on Mount Olympus....And ...Haley Johnson is startin' to run away with this...
"This first lieutenant, Army nurse, out here doing her best...You know where she works in the hospital, right? She delivers the babies...She is about to deliver another win...Haley Johnson, so impressive..."
Johnson clinched two of the main events but lost – by mere seconds – on a third, missing the grand championship.
But Johnson had given it her best, and in any case taking part had been about more than the competition's result, as much as she would have wanted to take the title.
It had much to do with her father, the person she says has been the main guide and inspiration to her life.
Late last year her father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She'd been slated to go to Fort Hood for further training but the Army granted her a compassionate reassignment, to Fort Benning, so she could be near her father and family. The family lives in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.
She began working at Fort Benning last October.
In that same heavy-hearted period, a message came in to her Instagram account last November from a casting producer at "The Titan Games." He'd seen some of the workout videos she's posted there, and asked if she'd be interested in trying out for possible inclusion as a contestant.
At first she was leaning toward declining. By December her father had been moved to hospice care.
Her mother though, pushed her, saying Haley's father would of all people want her to take it on. All through her life her father had believed in her, praised her athletic and other accomplishments, and encouraged her to aim high, and higher still.
"My mom was the one who probably pushed me to do it the most," said Johnson. "Because my dad was sick and she just knew how much he loved the idea of any of these types of shows. And how much he would have supported me and believed that I could do it and that I could win. So he just always reminded me of those things when I would doubt doing it.
"He would just always tell me, 'I am so proud of you,'" she said. "'I am so proud of everything that you are doing.' And he would constantly remind me of those things as I was doing them. And then he would always tell me that if I wanted something, I just have to go for it," said Johnson. "And he said, for me it seemed like anything was possible."
Then, in December, her father, Jerry Johnson died. He was 53.
Despite her grief, Johnson said yes to the tryout.
"I had a really strong 'why' behind what I was doing," she said, one that lent itself "perfectly to a competition like this."
In January she took a four-day pass and flew to Los Angeles. She was selected as a contestant, and later that month took a two-week leave for the taping of the show, which was in Atlanta.
To get ready, she watched episodes of the first season of "The Titan Games," and tailored her efforts to the show's obstacle course, making big use of the functional fitness equipment at the Audie Murphy Athletic Performance Center here.
"I recreated them in a training environment," Johnson said of the show's obstacles. "So I was able to do sled pulls, I'm able to really weigh down sleds and do 'em standing where I'm pulling the ropes in between my legs. I was able to do them seated. I was able to do them one-handed. And then I did a lot of pull-ups. I did a lot of deadlifting. Did running. And then they even have the cargo net and the ropes that are inside of Audie Murphy as well. So I practiced a lot climbing things."
Then there was the obstacle course about a block from the gym.
"I probably ran through that same obstacle course about four times. I would say over the span of two weeks, intermittently. Because the Audie Murphy gym has so much functional equipment. I didn't feel the need to solely go out there and do that," she said of the obstacle course. "They had a lot of stuff in Audie Murphy that translated perfectly."
She also discovered, though she wasn't surprised, that her Army fitness training gave her what she thinks was a distinct advantage.
"Absolutely," she said. "I think 100 percent. Because even doing Army-style obstacles, there's always a way that someone can show you, but at the end of the day it's however you and your team need to get over it in order to be successful.
"You know, you adapt and overcome," said Johnson. "So I feel like there's a lot of translation from military training – just predicting the unpredictable, or being able to be flexible and adapt and overcome. That definitely was translated well into the competition.
"We train such a wide variety of things," she said of the Army, "that I think that I had the advantage when it came to my grip strength, in particular with the fence climbing."
"We did a fence obstacle," she said of the Titan competition, "where it was like 10 to 20 feet suspended in the air and you're climbing long-wise on a fence and you'd have to come out perpendicular and come back and leap to a fence that was kind of like sideways.
"And so it's a lot of those things that I feel like are little things," she said. "Like I have calloused hands and things like that, that kind of gave me an advantage, during some of those.
"Or dragging –the new ACFT has a sled-drag," Johnson said, referring to the new Army Combat Fitness Test, which will become the Army's fitness test of record later this year.
"And the last bit of Mount Olympus is a 200-pound ball that you're dragging by a chain." she said. "So I think it's little things like that that kind of sets you apart."
Her military training and the culture of 'embrace the suck' also helped with the mental aspect of things.
"The mindset as well, of just like kind of 'embracing the suck,' and like you are exhausted but it's something that's not strange, I think, for most people in the military to push past that," said Johnson.
By the time the show began airing the segments that Johnson had been part of, she was back at work, and friends and colleagues were tuning in and loving it.
"They were every week getting really excited for me," she said. "Especially when I was winning. There's a couple of people at work that had been following it really closely and they just like every time I walk in, 'Oh my god, last night was crazy,' and just being so excited and telling me that they were screaming at their TVs.
"So the response from my co-workers has been fantastic," she said.
There were even people in the military who'd look up her email address in the military email system and send a shoutout of congratulations, said Johnson.
"It was really, really cool," she said.
Johnson's path to a commission as an Army officer began at Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe High School in Fort Oglethorpe.
"I had a really great mentor in high school who was part of the Army JROTC program there, and he knew that we didn't have a lot of money and I was trying to find scholarship options, and so he pointed me in the direction of the ROTC scholarship," she said.
She applied for a scholarship that guaranteed that if she successfully completed ROTC and earned her nursing degree, she'd be trained as an Army nurse.
She got the scholarship, and when she graduated from Kennesaw State University with a bachelor's degree in nursing, was commissioned in the Army.
Her father had been a gas station manager who worked tirelessly to support his family, including a wife and five children. His optimism, humor, and work ethic kept the family going, said Johnson, though the going was often rough economically, she said. There'd been years of living in the homes of relatives, even a bankruptcy, but also eventually a chance to live in their own home, a yellow house with a garage and front and back yard.
Johnson is the first college graduate in her family, and had been its only high school graduate until her younger brother graduated high school this May.
Her father's encouragement along with the hardships she lived through gave her a drive to forge a different, better life.
"Kind of seeing what it was like growing up like that," said Johnson, "being inside of it, feeling like embarrassed about where we lived or wanting to not let my friends come over because of my house or things like that, not being able to have a birthday party or never going on a family vacation, and just knowing that I wanted more for my family and I also wanted to be able to give back to my family as well, whenever I could."
Impressive athletic performance wasn't the only good thing to come out of her recent experience on national television.
While she was there, another contestant, one who wore a cowboy hat the whole time, drew her interest. It turned out that he worked as a sixth-grade social studies teacher and coached football.
"He had an attitude about him that was so warm and so inviting," she said.
After the games, a relationship grew, and they were married in June.
And the couple are expecting a baby.
It is, said Johnson, a boy.