This gentle Army Nurse was fierce on The Titans

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August 11, 2020 - 9:45 am
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1st Lt. Haley Johnson knows how to bring a gentle touch to working with newborn babies at the Army hospital at Fort Benning, Georgia, 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 assigned to the mother/baby unit at 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.

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."

Johnson clinched two of the main events but lost – by mere seconds – on a third, missing the grand championship.

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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 B enning last October.

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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.

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Her mother though, pushed her, saying Haley's father would of all people want her to take it on. 

"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.”

Jerry Johnson died in December at 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."

To get ready, she watched episodes of the first season of "The Titan Games," and tailored her efforts to the show's obstacle course

"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."

She also discovered, though she wasn't surprised, that her Army fitness training gave her what she thinks was a distinct advantage. 

“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.

By the time the show began airing the segments that Johnson had been part of, she was back at work, and her colleagues were tuning in.  

"They were every week getting really excited for me," she said. .

"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.

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