If you don't know who Julie Johnston is yet, you will. The 24-year-old Californian helped lead the U.S. Women's National Team to World Cup glory last summer in Canada, and aims to do the same at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A gold medal would mean yet another world title and, at such a young age, Johnston has the talent and skills to one day be considered among the greatest defenders, gender aside, to ever have played The Beautiful Game. And with a 2-0 victory over New Zealand to start the Olympics, Johnston and her teammates are well on their way to a 2012 gold medal repeat.
As with every elite athlete, a lot of hard work and planning goes into Johnston's behind the scenes day-to-day. We chatted with her as the USWNT were preparing for Olympic qualifying to get a better grasp on what it takes to be one of the best. Here's what she had to say.
CL: How's the team feeling about Brazil? (Editor's note: asked before Olympics began on 8/3/16.)
Julie: Some people don't remember this, but four years ago the team didn't qualify. We ended up having to go to a separate tournament [to qualify]. And we took it upon us to realize it's really important to take this game-by-game. Everyone's really focused, and we have a higher standard for ourselves after the World Cup.
CL: We'll definitely be tuning in to watch you all bring home the gold! What's it been like to watch the growth in popularity of soccer in the U.S., and women's soccer in particular?
JJ: It's definitely been growing and we feel that, not only across our fan base but just in younger generations wanting to play. And I think it's great because it's grown the sport. It's faster; it's more skillful. And so I think for me to be in the team right after 2012, to be part of the rise of soccer in this country, it's really fun. And at the end of the day, we want to continue growing this sport for younger generations.
CL: Let's talk nutrition. How do you eat when you're training?
JJ: I eat really healthy, and I kind of learned what works for me over time. I feel like that's the best—find out what works for you. But anything I can put in with vegetables has made a huge difference for me, as well as small changes—you know, butter with coconut oil, or using that instead of butter. It's just the small things that have made a huge difference that really add up and can make me perform my best.
CL: So you're an advocate of healthy swaps? We do that, too!
JJ: Yeah! Instead of sour cream, I'll use Greek yogurt. Just real simple things like that actually do make a difference. Like having Greek yogurt mixed with some taco sauce, rather than having sour cream on your taco.
CL: So healthy swaps and small changes. What about meals you eat on a typical day?
J: I wake up pretty early, have my cup of coffee and something really small—like a handful of a fruit or vegetable, just so I can go and run. And then I'll make a second breakfast, but small as well because I'm about to train again. ...A couple eggs, a fruit—I really like mangoes, so I'll throw those on whatever I can. Normally I try to make my lunch pretty plain. I have mostly salads at that time, with chicken or some type of protein. And if I can't get something right away I'll do protein shakes. Then with dinner I try to make it more hardy for me, depending on how hard my training was. I love fish, and I try everything, so I'm all for trying new recipes, new everything. I love grocery shopping. I'll kind of shop for two days, and I'll go again on the third day because I like my stuff real fresh.
CL: So if you love to shop, does that mean you're a planner, too?
JJ: I am a huge planner, so I like to plan out the meals I'm going to have throughout the week. I just find I end up kind of saving money when I already know what I have, and I just enjoy having time to plan and knowing what I'm going to do after I train. It just makes it so much easier for me to be aware of what I'm eating and how I can perform. So for me, it's really easy to go shopping and have a list, seeing that and not looking at what's probably not going to be the best choice for me at that time.
CL: What about training? What's something anyone can do from home to better their health, whether they're aspiring to become a world-class athlete or not?
JJ: I think the best one—and I do this every morning, even on my days off—I just go for a walk. As simple as that. Because when you get up and you start moving, I feel like throughout the day anytime I'm moving I just kind of make better choices. Even on my off days, I try to get up, get my coffee, and then I just go on a walk. And I typically walk with either a family member or a friend, and walk along for 30-40 minutes. I think, just for me, starting to get moving I already feel like I've made a good choice. I've noticed that I've made better choices throughout the day, too, whether it's food I'm making, or maybe I'm like, 'Okay, maybe I can go run, or do an extensive workout.' I really feel like it just ramps up your day. I think that's the easiest one to do is just start, 'Hey, I'm going to walk everyday for like 30-40 minutes.'
CL: So simple, yet such a great idea. Any other suggestions for aspiring soccer players looking to be the best?
JJ: Love what you do. And go out and train on your own, because those are the times when you just—you have a different passion for the sport. When you go out on your own, it becomes your choice. You want to get better. When you go out and start training on your own and doing something on your own to make something happen, I think it's the easiest way to start your dreams and your goals. Everyone here trains on their own and really tries to work on their weaknesses that they have to make them strengths. And that's the beauty of this team, and I think that's every athlete's goal and probably what they do behind the scenes. So just keep working hard and train on your own a little bit.
When you go out on your own, it becomes your choice. You want to get better. When you go out and start training on your own and doing something on your own to make something happen, I think it's the easiest way to start your dreams and your goals.
CL: One more question. What advice would you give to someone just wanting to live a healthier lifestyle?
JJ: I think just find whatever works for you, but as well just be educated. I think when I started doing research on food, and seeing how many calories are in things versus something else—once you kind of just know what's out there and available and what you like—your tastes—it makes it so much easier to make the better choice. And the easiest thing as well for me is having Zach [Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles tight-end and Julie's fiancé], who also eats really, really healthy. It keeps you accountable definitely, because now you have two of you. So if you could do it with someone, it also makes it an easier thing. So I'd say find what works for you, being educated, and have someone else do it with you, especially when you start off. Find someone else that wants to have a healthier lifestyle and do it together.
Thanks, Julie! Best of luck at the Olympics!
To learn more, visit teamusa.org. The Rio Olympics begin August 5.
Fast Facts About Julie
Perfect Meal: I really like fresh fish. So I'd say grilled fish, and make a nice mango salsa, some white rice, and broccoli. For me, that'd be a great dinner.
Favorite Indulgence: I'm a huge fan of dark chocolate. If I'm going to indulge, I'm going to try and be at least somewhat smart about it, especially in competition. And if chocolate makes me happy, I feel like that's only going to help me perform better. [laughs]
Go-to Training Snacks: Apples, bananas, and berries are always easy. Carrots, mangoes, and nuts, too—I'm a fan of cashews and almonds, so little handfuls of those give me a little extra until I can have a full, hardy meal.
Foods You Don't Touch: What are those things you slurp in a shell? Oysters? Those freak me out a little. I'm pretty proud of myself on what I've been willing to try, but oysters, olives—oh, and mustard! Those three are no-gos.
Training Equipment Musts: I've worn the same type of cleats my entire life. The Nike Tiempos.