Kristi Overton Johnson ’92 was 4 years old the first time her “river rat” father took her for a ride on water skis on Pamlico River in Bath, NC. She had no idea the places water skiing would take her — UCF, around the world, halls of fame, emergency rooms and least of all prisons.
At age 47, the marketing alumna will be inducted into the International Water Ski & Wakeboard Federation Hall of Fame on Friday, Sept. 8. While there is no denying her water skiing career, she is also a mother of three, author and visionary missionary who has experienced more in one lifetime than some could fit into three.
And that’s exactly as she prefers it.
“Anything out of balance falls,” she said. ‘That’s true in skiing, and that’s true in life.”
On her first lesson on the water, Overton Johnson learned a phrase that still is her life’s mantra to this day: “Hit it!
The command signaled the boat to take off, and she fell in love instantly. As she continued to return to the water, her progression as a skier hooked her to keep practicing.
By the time she was 9, Overton Johnson’s mother coached her while her 5-year-old brother mastered driving the boat. In addition to occasional coaching, her father was busy providing the financial means to support her expensive hobby that would become her career.
She turned pro at 13 and two years later was regularly competing at the master’s level against 20- and 30-year-old athletes.
“At that age, no one is expecting anything from you. The pressure came from in here (pointing at herself), not out there, and it never came from my parents,” she said. “It was always more of this drive in me that I knew what I could do, and if I did what I could do, I’d finish well.”
For nearly two decades, Overton Johnson dominated the women’s slalom, accumulating 80 professional victories and capturing more No. 1 world rankings than any other female skier in the sport’s history. She was an eight-time U.S. Masters champion, four-time U.S. Open champion, and held the world and national record in women’s slalom from 1992 to 2010.
She balanced her professional career with an education. Thanks to Orlando’s many lakes and agreeable weather, Overton Johnson arrived at UCF in 1988 and trained year-round while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in marketing.
The university turned out to be a perfect fit for her personality.
“I love people and organizations that are never satisfied with the status quo, that have a vision,” she said. “When I go on that campus and see the growth that’s happened there, it’s exciting. I really enjoyed my time there.”
She also met her husband at the university, Tim Johnson, who played football. He lived in a house that his parents owned on Lake Georgia off Dean Road. The water ski club at UCF kept its boat docked there, and a mutual friend introduced them with a feeling that they were meant for each other.
They’ve been together ever since and are raising three children, two of whom they adopted from Russia.
“I always say I used him for his lake, he used me for the boat,” she said. “It was a match made in heaven.”
The Next Ride
At 26, she discovered that she was born with a pelvic abnormality that required reconstruction. The abnormality combined with injuries she sustained from her sport have required 17 surgeries.
“I realized everything I was building my life on, skiing, could be gone in a heartbeat,” she said.
The wake-up call helped her find her true calling to help others.
She started an organization in 2003 for at-risk youth called In His Wakes. The one-day program applies lessons from water skiing and athletics to everyday life principles. Overton Johnson estimates that 80 percent of the youth who participate have never swam before.
Her group has reached roughly 20,000 children and teenagers around the country and internationally in places such as the Czech Republic, Austria and Canada.
Her next passion project was a magazine called Victorious Living. She started the quarterly faith-based publication in 2011 to inspire and encourage others with stories and themes related to her experiences as an athlete and Christian.
The magazine ended up landing her in the prison business.
She was sitting in a holding room for the first time in her life waiting for an inmate she knew as a boat driver in the water sports world. The inmate, Bill Doyle, requested a meeting after someone had sent Overton Johnson’s magazine to him.
She watched as other prisoners were reunited with their loved ones — a father hugging his child, a wife embracing her husband.
On the drive home, she cried and said she asked for a sign if she was meant to begin mission work in prisons.
Within a couple of weeks, the director of the chaplaincy office at the Florida Department of Corrections in Tallahassee reached out to Overton Johnson. The department wanted her magazine in every prison in Florida.
She now receives mail daily from inmates all over the country. She created a team to help her coordinate KOJ Ministries’ effort in providing handwritten correspondence, monthly devotionals and on-site prison visits.
As deeply devoted as she is to her faith, she has found a way to connect it with all the lessons she learned skiing.
“Champions are not people who never fall. I skied 35 years, and I fell every single day of my life,” she said. “I can look at prisoners and say ‘It’s not your faults and failures, it’s what are you going to do in the meantime? Are you going to get back up? And keep trying?’ That’s where those two words ‘hit it’ are so powerful. That’s what separates a champ from a chump.”