Some kids learn to walk early. Some crawl longer. And then there is Dakota Johnson who started doing flips soon after she learned to walk. By the time she was 4 years old, she was on a gymnastics team and at age 6 she was a full-fledged competitor.
She has a natural gift, loves the sport and progressed quickly. Each day she would train from 6 to 8 a.m. in the morning, go to school from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and be back at the gym to practice from 4 to 8 p.m.
“It was draining — but I didn’t know it.” Johnson said and then added, “I was in the bubble of gymnastics.”
The work paid off — and she gained elite gymnast status. Olympics dreams seemed real.
She hurt. But she felt the pain was normal for someone competing at her level.
Dakota’s mom Cindy credits Long Beach chiropractor Dr. Karen Bloch, who has a practice in Marina Pacifica that specializes in athletic training and sports medicine, for sensing something wasn’t right.
Bloch referred her to have a hip x-ray. The films revealed she had a fractured pelvis, a broken tailbone and a damaged hip.
Dr. Emory C. Chang, pediatric board certified orthopedic surgeon at MemorialCare Miller Children's & Women's Hospital Long Beach, diagnosed the hip damage as Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, a rare childhood condition that occurs when blood supply to the ball part of the hip joint is temporarily interrupted and the bone begins to die.
Chang performed an 11-hour reconstructive surgery — Johnson spent nine days at Miller Children’s and received three blood transfusions. The ball of the ball and socket grew back oval shaped and bumpy— the repair process resulted in multiple surgeries.
She wrote a back brace for five months, and spent most of sixth grade in a wheelchair. One leg was shorter than the other by an inch and a half. She wore a special elevated shoe — until a metal rod in her femur combined with a magnet-powered bone-lengthening device resolved the discrepant leg lengths.
After Johnson had healed, Dr. Bloch suggested exploring the McCormick Divers program as an alternative sport for Dakota. For more than 50 years, McCormick Divers has contributed to aquatics in Long Beach, and they normally train at King pool in Long Beach.
Debby McCormick said, “Most of the best divers in the world were gymnasts first. Unfortunately so many injuries are involved in gymnastics that diving seems to be the next best thing once the kids can no longer do gymnastics.”
Dakota now trains with McCormick divers three or four days a week for two hours.
Dakota, now 14, said she is sharing her story to raise awareness.
“There are so many kids out there who have been where I have been, who know what it’s like to have been burdened with the weight of a disease," Dakota said. "I have learned that everything happens for a reason and it’s always for the better. “
McCormick added, “Gymnastics provides incredible discipline and body control. There are a lot of adjustments going from gymnastics to diving. In gymnastics, they land on their feet, and in diving they dive in headfirst. Tumbling take-offs are different, so that is another adjustment. We use trampoline skills a lot in diving, and most gymnasts are used to trampoline work.”
Dakota also said she wants to inspire others: “There is always light at the end of the tunnel, so you should never hold yourself back from getting there and going beyond it. With what I have learned, I want to share and help as many people as I can who are struggling to see that light.”
McCormick offered some insight on the switch from gymnastics to diving.
“I find these kids are really fun to work with and they take coaching instruction so well," she said. "If some gymnasts ‘burn out' after so many years of intense training, they find diving to be a lot of fun and less stressful on their bodies. Also, after spending so many years honing their skills, they will not be wasted transferring to diving.
“When former gymnasts join our team, they have the training and self-discipline needed to succeed.”
With a knowing smile, Coach McCormick added, “Dakota has the mentality and talent to be an Olympian.”