As the daughter of a Hall of Fame baseball player, Willow Johnson learned at a young age about the sacrifice and commitment needed to compete at the highest level of sports.
Her father, the left-handed pitcher Randy Johnson, demonstrated that over a brilliant 22-year career, rarely taking time off from perfecting his craft. But his career rarely asked him to travel farther than Canada.
Willow Johnson, an elite volleyball player, didn’t have that luxury. Until recently, there was no pro league for women in the United States, forcing her overseas to find opportunities to play professionally. Last summer, she went to western Turkey to be the right-side hitter for Nilufer Belediyespor in one of the top women’s leagues in the world, where the expectations for players are every bit as demanding as those in professional baseball.
It was a culture shock in almost every way, from the language and food to the sheer intensity of the volleyball itself. Just buying groceries could be a challenge. Even though the season did not start until September, Johnson, 22, was required to be in Nilufer in late June to begin a two-month preseason, and most of her time there was consumed by volleyball and more volleyball, all day long, every day. Then she went home alone and repeated the cycle the next day.
“If I had a bad day on the court I went back to my apartment and there wasn’t anything I could get away to,” she said in a recent telephone interview, conducted along with her father. “With the time difference, it was hard to communicate with my family back home, and that took a toll on me as the season went on. The mental aspect is really hard.”
In need of both a mental and physical break, Johnson eventually left Turkey and returned home to Arizona. But now she is finally getting a chance to compete professionally in her own country. Later this month, she will join a new professional volleyball league, the only one for women in the United States.
Organized and run by Athletes Unlimited, a company that is also starting professional lacrosse and softball leagues, the venture is sanctioned by U.S.A. Volleyball and will feature 44 top players, including national team members from five countries. For the first season, all matches will be played at Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas in a compact schedule that runs from Saturday to March 29.
“It’s really important that female athletes start getting as much social media and TV attention as they possibly can,” she said. “I feel really honored to be able to play in my home country. I want to help grow something and 20 years from now look back and say, ‘Yeah, I was on that first team.’”
Despite the absence of a professional league in the United States, volleyball has thrived in the country. According to an annual report by the National Federation of State High School Associations, more than 450,000 girls played high school volleyball in 2019, second only to track and field, and the numbers for the sport rose in each of the previous seven years. At the college level, volleyball trailed only soccer, softball and track and field during the same period, according to a study by the N.C.A.A.
Johnson played high school volleyball in Arizona, joined an elite club travel team there and then played four years at the University of Oregon, where she finished ninth in program history with a .272 hitting percentage. She had 1,011 kills and 1,165 career points.
At 6-foot-3, she possesses a devastating overhand strike with a powerful left hand inherited, in part, from her father, as well as the necessary jumping ability prized by the game’s top hitters. But also like her father, who used off-speed pitches with as much effect as his electric fastball, she also knows how to find the floor with a deft, softer touch.
Johnson and her famous father bear a striking resemblance, especially in competition. Both are tall, imposing athletes. Both wield a lethal left arm, seemingly built to unleash fury on opponents, and both have a fiery side when competing. The similarities have long been evident to Willow, who has taken time to watch video highlights of her father that reinforced her own memories.
“I’m sure you’ve heard that my dad was a very intimidating person,” she said. “I’ve seen the clips where he would strike someone out and point up and scream. I do a similar thing. Not that I try to replicate that. But when it’s game time it’s game time, and nothing else matters.”
Wherever she played, her father was often in the stands, trying his best — even at 6-10 and known to millions of sports fans — to blend in with the parents of other players rooting for their daughters. Although he is also an accomplished photographer, Johnson said he did not take his camera to his children’s sporting events because he wanted to absorb the entire event and not be “blinded by a lens,” as he put it, or bring attention to himself.
“Yeah, I get recognized, but I’m just there to support her along with her mom,” he said. “I’m just a proud dad sitting up in the bleachers, like all the other dads. We sit up there, and we talk and laugh and watch.”
Johnson said he always worked to support Willow and her siblings in their endeavors, athletic and otherwise, while leaving space for them to determine their own destinies. If they chose to move on from a sport, so be it, he said, as long as they followed their passions. But there is one issue he will “nag” Willow about, based on his own experience as a professional athlete: her health.
Volleyball is a physically demanding sport, especially for the knees and shoulders of hitters, with constant jumping, hitting and diving to the floor. Many professional leagues, like the one in Turkey, are known for their grueling practices, which can wear at the durability of the players.
Randy Johnson never played volleyball, so he cannot advise his daughter on positioning, footwork or technique, but he pitched until he was 46. He won 303 games in 603 starts and led all of baseball in innings pitched two times. He threw at least 200 innings 14 times, including 205 for the Yankees in 2006 at age 42, and he tossed 100 complete games. Those numbers are unattainable without health and durability.
For every inning Johnson pitched, he spent several more hours doing strengthening exercises and icing his shoulder to ensure that he made it to the mound when called upon, and Willow said she saw enough of it, even at home, for it to sink in. His pitching motion may be different from her overhead slam, but at their core, there is one fundamental similarity.
“Her bread and butter is her left shoulder,” Johnson said, “just like mine was. So you have to take care of it.”
Willow Johnson is in Dallas training for the new season. She said she was healthy, refreshed and ready to play. Eventually, she hopes to go back overseas and one day get a spot on the United States national team.
In the meantime, she hopes the league will tap into the popularity of the sport at the grass-roots level and carve out a viable option for the best U.S. female volleyball players to make a living at home, similar to women’s basketball, and similar to her father.
“The W.N.B.A. is building their viewership, and I hope that we can do the same,” she said, “and build this program with some of the best players in America.”