SE: Gaming, Rowing and the Making of K-State Coxswain Emily Johnson

By: Austin Siegel

Sophomore year, I saved up the money to build my own computer.


It’s just a detail to Emily Johnson. She talks about it so matter of factly, you run it back in your head a few times to make sure you heard right. But it’s only because Johnson is less interested in talking about building her own PC than how it helped her find a community in Manhattan.


Johnson is a rower at K-State. She’s also passionate about video games. 


If you want to understand why a student-athlete with interests that would seem to have so little in common has spent four years sitting at the back of a boat, speeding down the Tuttle Creek Reservoir, you have to do something Johnson did every day as a coxswain at K-State.


 Take in new information. Adjust your expectations. React accordingly.


“In rowing, we have a race plan,” Johnson said. “We try and follow through, but if something were to change and another boat is trying to make a move before us, we have to respond. It’s the same in Overwatch or Siege. If something isn’t going right, we need to respond to that.”


During her career at K-State, Johnson picked up Academic All-Big 12 honors and coxed the Wildcats 1v8+ boat to a gold medal at the 2019 SIRA Championships in Tennessee.


Her final appearance in a K-State boat came at the 2020 Sac State Duel, where the rowing team held spring camp. In Sacramento, head coach Pat Sweeney remembers Johnson doing exactly what’s made her such a reliable coxswain at K-State: getting the Wildcats on the same page. 


“At the camp, she was setting up a video game that some of the other kids could play,” Sweeney said. “I’m older, so I’m not as into these things. But she’s a gaming nerd.”


Videos games have been a passion for Johnson before she ever stepped into a K-State boat.  She was interested in Gameboys and GameCubes as a kid, along with classic video games that Johnson discovered through her family.  


“I actually really enjoyed playing those games with my Dad,” she said. “I was tiny in 2nd or 3rd grade when I found his old DS, stole that from him and started playing games on that.”


As Johnson grew up, videos games were making the leap from consoles in which gamers played level after level against the computer to vast networks of gaming fans around the world. 


Some of Johnson’s favorite video games include Overwatch and League of Legends, which boast millions of players worldwide and e-sports competitions that routinely sell out arenas. 


“When I got to college, that’s when I met people that built their own computers,” Johnson said. “By junior year, I had my own PC and could mess around with my friends on there.”


At K-State, Johnson was introduced to gamers with online networks in which they teamed up with friends to challenge other players. Unlike the GameCube from Johnson’s childhood, her homemade PC meant she could focus almost exclusively on team-based video games.


It’s easy to mischaracterize online gaming as a bunch of strangers playing against each other, but Johnson has found a welcoming community of gamers at K-State and around the country. 


“When you’re playing on a PC it’s all multiplayer. There’s so much more connection with different people than there is on a console,” Johnson said. “Some of the people that I still play with are from freshman year. We may not see each other, but we still talk online every night.”


Whether she knew it or not, Johnson was also preparing for another K-State experience.    


The differences between gaming and rowing are obvious, but the similarities are a bit like the Starbucks cup in a Game of Thrones episode: You might have missed it at first, but now it’s difficult to notice anything else.  
Next to a goalie in ice hockey, a coxswain might be the most specialized position in sports. Johnson does so much more than just encourage and motivate the other rowers, as the coxswain is in charge of steering the boat and making tactical decisions throughout the race.
“Reaction time, thinking on the fly, especially being able to process what’s happening,” Johnson said. “In Overwatch, I like to play as a Healer. As a Healer, you need to know where everybody is at all times so you can help them out. It’s the same thing in rowing. You have to be aware of what’s happening around your boat and with other boats so that you can react.”
Before a meet, a coxswain like Johnson will meet with officials and coaches to go over the rowing course, rules and traffic patterns on the water. The position requires a rower with a quick mind and the ability to change a race plan as they process new information. 
It’s no surprise then, that somebody like Stephen Hawking was a coxswain at Oxford. 
Before Johnson arrived at K-State, rowing wasn’t in her college plans. Her dad was talking to the father of another K-State rower when he suggested Johnson consider joining the Wildcats.
“I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ I didn’t know K-State had a rowing team,” she said.
In Manhattan, Johnson met a head coach with the experience to know the traits of a coxswain when he saw them: Sweeney coxed Great Britain to a silver medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics and a bronze in 1988. 
Sweeney has built a rowing program at K-State by finding athletes who played a sport like volleyball and basketball in high school and thought their careers were over. But that same dedication to getting better and pushing themselves has also made them excellent college rowers.
In this way, Johnson is no different than her K-State teammates. But on top of that dedication, her gaming experience helped her develop a different set of skills for a very different position.
“I always thought she was talented, but she’s learned even more and was doing such an excellent job,” Sweeney said. “It’s a shame she didn’t get to finish the season.”
In perhaps the strangest twist of Johnson’s time at K-State, the end of her senior rowing season due to COVID-19 means gaming is one of the few activities she can do while social distancing.
“It’s definitely increased since I have a lot more time on my hands,” Johnson said. “I can expect certain people to be online at 10 in the morning, other people will come on at noon. There have been days where people will just stay and chat for a few hours while playing games.”
Using a platform called Discord, Johnson can play video games or watch other gamers while chatting with friends. Her connection to the gaming community at K-State has remained strong even as she has returned home to finish the spring semester away from campus. 
Of course, that means online gaming on her PC, where gamers like Johnson have to deal with the same difficult members of the community that pop up in any sport. 
“There are plenty of people who are really good who will start a new account just to mess with people who are new,” she said. “Don’t let the toxicity get you down.”
Johnson suggested that anyone looking to get back into gaming while most of the country is stuck at home turn to a video game like Overwatch, where many gamers don’t play with a headset and won’t be able to talk to anyone who is still learning how to master the game.
“People in Overwatch are just a little more laid back,” she said. 
While she finishes her senior year of college back home, Johnson is already planning to return to Manhattan where she will begin taking classes at K-State’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
“This is something I’ve been working towards my entire life. It’s a dream come true,” she said. “I work at the Vet school as a lab TA, so I know the professors that I’ll be having for Gross Anatomy and Microbiology. I’m so excited to go back as a student.”
And that’s the thing about a conversation with Emily Johnson.

Her K-State rowing teammates call her J. Her Discourse ID is Emilith#3256. One day, you just might call her Dr. Johnson.


But when it comes to her role as a coxswain, Johnson is most proud of what she has left behind at K-State.  


“I’m proud that I never stopped pushing myself and tried to learn something that was completely new,” she said. “Being able to pass down my skills and lessons to the younger coxswains, helping them out and helping them grow…I’m happy with where the team is going.”


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