Jun 22, 2022
April Johnson — Making A Difference At Every Stop
Wesley Sykes, managing editor

As an athletic trainer, April Johnson has been all over the country, but she feels most at home when helping others be healthy and safe. 

“My philosophy has always been to find a place that brings you joy, and make a difference,” said Johnson, currently the certified athletic trainer at Sunnyside High School in Fresno, CA. 

johnsonWhether it be at the college level, a clinical setting, or the high school level in New Jersey, North Carolina, or California, Johnson’s life philosophy has helped guide student-athletes to make healthy life decisions for the last 15 years. 

But it was her most recent work at Sunnyside that set Johnson apart from the more than 180 nominees for Training & Conditioning’s Most Valuable High School Athletic Trainer of the Year award. 

Hired during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in December 2020, Johnson quickly made an impact on the Wildcats community. 

“It’s all about making adjustments,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, it’s about making the best environment possible for the students, because they were affected the most. What can I do to make this a fun, welcoming, and safe environment for them because they were going through a lot.” 

She rose to the occasion during the ‘COVID season,’ where all 22 athletic teams — and roughly 700 student-athletes — competed at the same time while holding up her crossover training and the singular needs of the coaches, staff, and student-athletes. Johnson was responsible for all the COVID-19 protocols and the contact tracing, volunteering every morning to test student-athletes to be able to participate in the 2021 winter and spring sports seasons. 

“April goes above and beyond in every aspect of her job and is available to assist when needed,” said Sue Farmer, Sunnyside’s athletic director. “I have been an athletic director, a trainer, and a coach for over 30 years, and I have never seen an athletic trainer more committed to his or her job and the people they work with. I can count on her to not only do her job but to do an exceptional job.”

Knowledge Travels

Lightning rarely occurs in central California. So, the need for a lightning policy in place for schools must be pretty low on the to-do list for athletic directors. But in that rare instance that it does occur, what do you do? 

Johnson was faced with that same situation at Sunnyside. When the next steps were in doubt, she relied on her experiences in New Jersey and North Carolina to halt the game and enact the 30-minute rule while guiding the teams to a safe place. 

When asked how she knew what to do so quickly she replied, “I’m from the east coast. This happens weekly!”

“If I can take my experiences from other states and apply them here — even in the little things like a lightning policy — then I’m doing my job,” she added.

johnsonThat desire to share her knowledge of the craft extends beyond Sunnyside High School and into the greater Fresno Unified High School district. There she brings new information and ideas to six other athletic trainers to update and improve their policies and practices. Johnson and that team have been responsible for the implementation of a new emergency action plan, improving communication between nurses and CAT teams to ensure student-athletes safely return from concussions, and improving the air quality policy.

Beyond that Johnson continues to advocate for athletic training licensure legislation in the state and make further safety improvements to move California up from the 51st position in the Korey Stringer Institute’s 2022 State High School Sports Safety Ratings. 

“Licensure is the number one topic in California. It has been for years. We keep pushing and fighting for it,” Johnson said. “I had previously been in New Jersey and North Carolina, which were in the top five during my time. And to see those good policies and safety in place for the athletes and then come out here, let’s not just provide good sports, but safe sports.”

Pay It Forward

Though she was a swimmer and a track and field athlete in Michigan during her high school days, Johnson’s school never had an athletic trainer on staff. When she had injuries she went to the coaches or her parents for support. She found her passion for athletic training after being burnt out from playing sports but still wanting to be a part of the world. But it wasn’t until her graduate school training that she found her mentor in the industry.

“It’s imperative. Having someone to bounce ideas off, some to support you — obviously, in terms of references and resumes, but also having someone to talk about what’s going on in the field — and maybe someone who tells you you’re wrong sometimes,” Johnson said. “I still talk to her today.” 

Now she makes herself available to those at Sunnyside and Fresno State who are aspiring to be in the athletic training field. 

“One of the main reasons I stay at the high school level is to mentor the high school kids,” Johnson said. “That is extremely important to me. There is a mentorship and guidance you can provide that maybe the other levels are too old for. You can really change one’s perspective on things while maintaining the athletic training duties.”

» ALSO SEE: Protecting the Young Elbow Part II

Farmer added, “The interns and students enjoy working with her so much, they stick around beyond their duty days as well. April is an amazing role model for these young folks.” 

Her ability to connect with athletes was evident this spring when a few of her former student-athletes invited Johnson to watch their college graduation via Zoom. 

Having worked in a variety of capacities within the athletic training industry, Johnson urges her young students to be equally open-minded when approaching their future careers as it can combat the burnout rate among athletic trainers. 

“Get experience in as many athletic training areas as possible,” she said. “Athletic training is not just athletics. It spans far and wide.”

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