Her teammates call her the “old lady” of the group, but it’s clear that Fairfield’s former soccer
team captain Ahna Johnson ’09 won’t be hanging up her cleats anytime soon.
In fact, this superstar midfielder just got back from a month in Israel, where she competed for the U.S. in the 19th Maccabiah Games with 9,000 athletes from 77 other countries. How did the team fare?
“We won the gold medal! We are still on cloud nine right now!” she e-mailed from Jerusalem shortly after the U.S. team defeated Israel, 6-1, in the final on July 29.
The Games are named for the Maccabees, a Jewish rebel army that gained sovereignty against the oppressive Seleucid empire in 160 BCE, thus retaking control of Judea; the Maccabee name has come to symbolize the strength and courage of the Jewish people ever since. Held every four years in Israel, the Games are often referred to as the “Jewish Olympics,” with sports ranging from badminton to archery, judo, and dozens of others. Any Israeli athlete can participate, but international competitors must be Jewish.
Most of the competitors on the U.S. soccer team are college players or very recent graduates, but that didn’t stop Johnson from trying out and winning a place.
“I’m the oldest on the team and I had not played competitive soccer for a few years, but I thought this opportunity would be a great way to visit Israel and to play again,” she said, adding that she first heard about the Games when her former coach at Fairfield, Jim O’Brien, sent her an e-mail a year ago, urging her to try out.
By all accounts, Johnson’s first trip to Israel was a whirlwind of cultural encounters, adventure, new experiences — as well as workouts. Tours and discussions are a mandatory part of the Maccabi USA program, so after morning practice she and her teammates might, for instance, spend an afternoon at the Dead Sea, a Bedouin tent village, or Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. One particularly moving experience, Johnson said, was an afternoon spent with her parents visiting her grandmother’s cousin, a Holocaust survivor.
“She shared her experiences during the Holocaust,” Johnson recalled, “hiding, moving from place to place, pretending she was Christian, smuggling food to other Jews in ghettos, and finally being interned at Bergen Belsen. It was amazing to be in the company of this person who lived through such a horrific time and found a way to survive, not just physically but with her belief in the beauty of life intact.”
Since graduating from Fairfield (with the Loyola Medal, given to the senior who exemplifies the true spirit of a Jesuit education), Johnson’s athletic abilities have opened doors to other opportunities around the world. “It is sometimes hard to pinpoint experiences I have had and lessons I have learned that are not a result of my participation in sports,” she said. She spent four-plus months in Sweden playing on a club team, and a summer in Nicaragua volunteering as a gym teacher and soccer coach. In between, she has worked at a solar energy company, a position that used her degree in physics and information systems. Currently, she is an assistant coach for an under-13 girls’ premier team near her hometown of Hamden, Conn. “I take my position there very seriously because I know what a huge role sports and soccer played in my life,” Johnson said.
Someday, Johnson said, she hopes her career path will take her back to work in the solar industry, but for this fall she’s got another project in mind: starting her own fruit smoothie business, an idea she’s been noodling around since her travels in South America. “It will combine my interest in the environment, healthy eating, and exercise,” said Johnson, who has already spent a few months working on the start-up.