Kayla Johnson has just completed the toughest workout of her season to date. There was a Bronco test, a gym session and a court session in a single morning. She’s “pretty fucked up,” she tells me, from her car outside. And this is certainly not the first time in recent years that she has felt this.
The past two years for the talented player have been full of twists and turns, with Johnson returning to the Silver Ferns and his ANZ Premiership side the Robinhood Stars this year after two years in Australia. She embarked on a journey that required hard and persistent work and challenged her in many ways. But the aspect of her journey that our conversation naturally gravitates towards is being the mother of two-year-old Millah.
It’s a pleasure talking to Johnson about motherhood not only because she speaks with such clear love for her daughter, but also because of the honest and genuine way she shares her experiences.
For example, she tells me about her trip to London with the Silver Ferns for the Quad Series in January of this year. Johnson traveled with Millah and an “incredible” friend and the three stayed together under the strict Ferns bubble during their stay. It was “an absolute nightmare,” Johnson says, an experience she “would never recommend to anyone.” “(Millah) literally screamed from New Zealand to Singapore, eleven hours straight, so that was a great start!”
Johnson suspects Millah was going through “some kind of regression” at the time and was very clingy to her. It made touring “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, trying to juggle being a mom but also…because I hadn’t been on tour for so long, I was still getting back into the rhythm of things, seeing how things were working again in this environment.
The long-time defender was surprised to have the playing time she spent in London and suspects she did it ‘on pure adrenaline’. Sleep deprivation carried me through, I had to produce extra adrenaline and just used it in the field.
Despite all that, she and Millah got through the tour and the long stay at MIQ that followed, and she is careful to point out that Millah has “seen so much travel well, rubbing shoulders with so many new people.”
It’s a far cry from what she expected from life in 2019 when she moved to Sydney to support husband Shaun in his rugby league career. Johnson was in six weeks of pre-season training with her new team, the New South Wales Swifts, when she discovered she was pregnant. She had really enjoyed the practice and relished the challenge of “playing their style, which was really difficult.”
Early in her pregnancy, she loved “being able to eat whatever I wanted, not working out so much…it was amazing! It also moved her towards her passions outside of netball, taking a floristry course and temporarily working from home as a florist. “I was very bored of being at home and not many friends and family there, so I thought of something that could keep me busy, something that I really like, and I always wanted to be a florist, so I’m pretty much just thrown myself into a little side hustle.
“…It didn’t last very long. I did it for four weeks, then I was brought into labor. I thought oh, I’ll get Millah and I’ll keep doing this on the side. It went out the window as soon as I found out how much little babies sleep and the lack of energy I had! I thought I could take her to the markets at 4:00 in the morning. Even though I was already with Millah at that time, I thought, yes, I can’t do this anymore! The love for floristry remains however, and in the long term Johnson would like to do “something in the creative industry…I would like to do an interior design course someday when I have some time” .
Towards the end of the pregnancy, Johnson “missed netball so much I wanted to play again but I thought ‘who knows, will my body recover? …You always see other moms … come back so quickly. I didn’t know if I was going to be like that or on the other end of the spectrum.
Johnson is friends with Australian netballer Kim Ravaillion and while pregnant she found herself “religiously looking at her page and how quickly she recovered from being born and pregnant. She looked amazing and j thought if she could do it, I could do it too. The reality was a little different.”
After the birth, Johnson spoke candidly about how her body was “pretty broken”, rendering her unable to walk for about a month afterwards. “The first three months were probably really tough for me and Shaun actually just because we didn’t have any family so it was really tough and Shaun broke his Achilles tendon three weeks after the birth. from Millah… Shaun couldn’t really walk either so I felt like I had two babies to take care of.
One of Johnson’s first physical concerns after birth was working out her pelvic floor. “I went to see the Women’s Health physio…she did all the internal exams and pretty much told me my pelvic floor was gone! I had to work very hard to get it back. I did a lot of Pilates and just all the little exercises.
She’s reached a point now where ‘it’s working enough that I don’t pee when I jump’ but continues to do Pilates at least once a week and says it’s something she’ll have to keep focusing on over the season.
Then came the slow and steady climb to regain the ground. This required Johnson to, quite simply, “work my ass off.”
Even now, having made her return to the Silver Ferns and the Stars, she admits, “I still feel like my body still isn’t quite there. It’s something I can handle, it’s just not as effective as it used to be. Before, I was much faster and could jump higher and run longer. I can do these things, I just have to try harder. It’s frustrating at times, but listen, I’m still here, still working on it every day and hoping that one of these days everything will fall into place and I’ll feel like I used to again.
Not only is there a relentless training schedule (six days a week) to manage now, Johnson recently had the added challenge of not having her husband by her side as he is based in Australia with the Warriors. Initially it was rough and “all over the show”, but Johnson and Millah are finding their feet. “…Now that we’re settling into the season, we definitely have better routines in place, Millah knows what she’s doing every day, I know what I’m doing every day. We are much better now. »
That certainly doesn’t leave Johnson much time for herself and it’s understandable that there was an adjustment phase to this aspect of her life as well. Prior to Millah, she “…loved going for facials and massages and having lots of time to myself.” Now she says she’s “kind of changed my mindset by turning really small things into bigger beautiful things like saying I’m going to have a cup of coffee or go sit outside in the sun and read a book or listening to music or something… I’m happy with that now, I don’t have to go out and have a day spa I’m quite happy to have those little moments where I can relax a bit.
Right now what makes her proud to be Millah’s mother is seeing her little girl develop and learn new skills. “Seeing her learn to climb the monkey bars at the playground and she couldn’t do it last week or she learned a new word or someone’s name or a new person.”
To herself, Johnson is “so proud of my body and my resilience for just pushing even though I feel like my body doesn’t want to.” And – after the trip she has been on – it would be hard not to agree that she should be immensely proud of it.