More than 100 U.S. Olympians have become doctors. Most entered medical school after they quit chasing medals. But one Rio contender started to believe she could train for the 2016 Olympics and earn her M.D. at the same time -- thanks to a random run-in at the last Games.
During the second week of the London Olympics, Abby Johnston was grabbing breakfast at McDonald's in the athlete's village. The Duke senior had already earned a silver medal in diving in the 3-meter synchro event and was wearing USA gear while standing in line. When Gevvie Stone saw "USA," she said hello. Stone was a Princeton grad who had just placed seventh in rowing in single sculls. She was also two years into medical school at Tufts.
They started chatting and found a table.
"I don't remember how it came up," Stone says of their mutual career aspirations, "but once it did, she got pretty excited because she was pre-med at Duke. I told her, at least in rowing, I definitely had time to train during the first and second years. Starting medical school didn't necessarily mean an end to the athletic career."
Since then, the women lost touch -- but both said the conversation was indelible.
"It just set off a spark in my mind that maybe I could do the Olympics and go to medical school," Johnston says. She took her MCATs in 2013 and got in to Duke.
A (very) complicated schedule
At Duke, medical students spend the first year in the classroom, then do clinical rotations in hospitals in their second year to get hands-on experience. This is followed by a year of research and a fourth year of more rotations.
Johnston knew right away that the Rio Olympics would fall at the end of her second year, and the long and unpredictable hours of rotations would would wreak havoc with -- if not prohibit -- any type of training regimen.
"I had this idea that I could switch my second and third year," she says. "Of course, I didn't tell them this when I was interviewing. I didn't even tell them that I was continuing to dive because I didn't want them to think that I wasn't taking it seriously enough."
But once she had settled into her first year, she wrote a proposal to switch the two years. And Duke allowed it, much to her relief. "It gives me a more stable day-to-day schedule. My friends on rotations are working at all hours."
Now in her second year of medical school, Johnston expects to complete her research projects in June, just before the U.S. Olympic trials. Then, she says she will have the rest of the summer to train and hopefully compete in Rio in August.
At the moment, however, the U.S. isn't guaranteed a berth in the women's 3-meter events. The last-chance qualifier is the Olympic test event in February, the World Cup in Brazil.
On Wednesday Johnston earned the right to compete at that World Cup by winning the 3-meter synchro event with partner Laura Ryan at the winter nationals. It was Johnston's seventh national title, and she is also favored to win an eighth title in the individual 3-meter event on Sunday.
Then, if the U.S. earns Olympic spots in February at the test event, she still must finish first or second at the Olympic trials in June to make her second Olympic team.
It sounds complicated but then, Johnston doesn't do simple. Her first year of med school was eye-opening. "It was brutal," she says. "It was 11 months of no days off."
She would get out of class around noon, run to the pool, train, then return to school. Now, in her second year, she trains three to four hours a day, six days a week, and devotes at least six hours a day to medical school, including time on weekends.
"I think I do better when I have multiple things going on so I'm not just focused on diving -- because I can be really hard on myself," she says. Now she has no time to dwell on a bad practice because she has to shift into doctor mode.
And when she shifts to diving, she's reminded that she's in a different world. Even though she trains with Duke undergrads like she did before London, "The other day, they were talking about how long they've had their driver's licenses. I was like, 'Ohmygosh, I've had mine for almost 10 years and they've had it for three months,'" she laughs. "At practice, people are like, 'How's school?' I'm like, 'Um, good! I put an IV in today. How's school for you?'"
Making it work
Not all Olympic sports are conducive to attending medical school, and not all schools would enable an athlete like Johnston to do double duty right up until two months before the opening ceremonies.
Gevvie Stone, the rower, took a two-year hiatus from Tufts med school before the last Olympics, and is in the midst of another pre-Olympic break before applying to residency in orthopedic surgery. In rowing, she explains, "You really need two years to prepare fitness-wise for the Olympics, to get the strength and fast-twitch and top-speed components back." Right now she trains 4 to 4½ hours a day.
Another U.S. athlete who mixed med school and Olympic training was Bob Kempainen, a marathoner who made two Olympic teams while earning his M.D. at the University of Minnesota in the 1990's, and is now a pulmonary and critical care doctor in the Twin Cities.
"For me," he says, "the big unknown was, if you're in school full-time, how much training can you get away with? Because you can never take a full year off of running. Ever. I probably did two-thirds of what I normally would have done. You'd get the harder workouts in, but you might not get the second run in that day. You'd have to cut corners here and there, but the higher-priority stuff would still get done."
"I needed to catch up with my coach a few times a week when I was training hard. Not every day," Kempainen says, "But for a diver, I don't know. You'd need a really flexible coach."
Johnston found one in Duke's current head coach, Nunzio Esposto, who holds college and club practices throughout the day. "He was willing to let me pop in whenever it fit my schedule," she says.
And Johnston has three other key advantages. She was already an Olympic veteran when she started medical school, so she knows what to expect at the Games. She already has an Olympic medal, so some of the pressure is off. And finally, unlike racing, diving is a judged sport that depends on well-honed technique and experience.
"I'm at a point where I've done my 10,000 hours [of practice] and I'm mostly refining what I've been doing for so many years. That lends itself to shorter practices," she says.
On the flip side, Johnston literally couldn't afford to take time off from medical school even if she wanted to. Her stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee wouldn't cover her rent and cost of living, and she has student loans. "If I took a leave of absence, I'd have to start paying back my loans after six months, I think, and I wouldn't have any sort of income."
So she's leading a double life for now, and feels it's worth it for the career that she's always envisioned. "I was a pretty sick child," she says, and the familiarity of the doctor's office put her at ease. "Rather than being a kid who was scared of going to the doctor, I kind of enjoyed it and was fascinated by everything they could do."
So the long march to Rio and medicine continue. So, too, for Stone. Should they meet again at a fast-food counter in Brazil, Johnston says, "I would love to talk to her about how she did it after London... to hear about her clinical rotation and residency, all those things. I definitely do not have it figured out. I should reach out to her, I really should."