AJ Johnson handled highs and lows and is more motivated than ever

Results and Overall Standings

AJ Johnson of Oswego, Illinois, stood in the settee area at the South Point Bowling Plaza in Las Vegas and watched anxiously as Team USA veteran Tommy Jones was called upon to lock up the coveted team gold medal at the 2017 World Bowling World Championships.

What happened next was a euphoric mix of real and surreal. A combination of the expected and unexpected.

As he had in previous opportunities, Jones delivered. Emotions erupted, and the rest of the team rushed the approach in celebration. There's no holding back when dreams are becoming reality, and in that moment, Jones gave Johnson more than just a gold medal.

AJTJWorldsForWeb637x359"I don't know that I've had that special of a moment with a team or will again," Johnson said. "To win a team gold medal at the World Championships, wearing the red, white and blue and USA on your back and with guys who were the only reason I'd watch bowling on TV on Sunday afternoons when I was a kid was incredibly special and unforgettable.

"I don't know that I'll ever forget when Tommy threw the last shot and came back and basically jumped into my arms. I'm standing there holding up the guy I modeled my game after. Wow, that was cool. That was an amazing and humbling experience and a life-changing moment."

Johnson literally was on top of the world, and the view was amazing.

The young right-hander carried that momentum and confidence into 2018. He felt he'd proven something to himself, his teammates and his coaches, and that after many close calls in his bowling career, the pins finally were falling his way.2017WorldChampsTeamGoldForWeb637x359

Two months later, Johnson finished second at the United States Bowling Congress Team USA Trials. It was another near-miss, but it did guarantee him a return trip to Team USA. Since it also was a year for the World Bowling Men's Championships, it also meant the possibility of being part of the team's title defense in Hong Kong.

While it had taken Johnson most of his two and a half decades to reach the apex of the bowling world, the stay was shorter than he'd hoped, and his fall from the peak was sudden and fast.

As 2018 wound down, a series of unexpected events tested him in character-defining ways, and in the matter of a year, he'd reached the peak and hit rock bottom.

First, was the sudden end to a personal relationship that came without closure. That was followed by a phone call letting him know he was not going to be part of the Team USA squad heading to Hong Kong for the 2018 World Bowling Men's Championships.

The hits continued at the start of 2019, when a schedule conflict meant Johnson and many fellow competitors would have to choose between the Team USA Trials and the first event of the Professional Bowlers Association Tour season.

Since the Team USA program allows past team members and top-tier professionals the opportunity to submit resumes and be considered for the team, Johnson chose that route, crossed his fingers and kicked off his 2019 PBA Tour season 1,200 miles away.

He later found out he was not selected to be a member of Team USA in 2019.

"Personal things that had been in the works suddenly weren't going to be happening, and it made me resent myself and bowling because I thought that was a reason," Johnson said. "It made me question a lot of things. I never really knew what depression or anxiety were until then, and it was scary. One thing after another happened and just added to it. It was tough for a little while and took some time to get out of."

Johnson was fortunate he was able to realize the darkness he was experiencing and was comfortable leaning on others to assist him in moving forward.

He read books that helped the process, and he got better at separating personal things from bowling things. That kept any off-the-lane stuff from affecting his performance and livelihood.

A change in bowling ball companies and a switch from 16-pound balls to 15-pound equipment helped turn the bowling part of his life in the right direction, and he continued to make strides when he wasn't on the lanes.

"The friends I have out on Tour really did a lot to help me get out of it, which included talking about things away from bowling, playing golf, going to the gym - things to help get my mind off things and keep me from sitting in a quiet place and letting my brain spin down," Johnson said. "I felt like I battled through it, but it took me awhile. I got good at separating things. When I showed up to bowl, I was all in from practice until the last shot of the day. Dealing with other stuff waited until after."

When it came to Team USA, Johnson was disappointed about not being part of the title defense in Hong Kong, but he wasn't mad. He knew the 2018 Team USA roster potentially was among the deepest the program has ever had, and the coaches had the responsibility of fielding the team they thought would give the United States the best chance to succeed.

Johnson was home watching, though, as supportively as the day in 2017 he stood anxiously in the bowlers' area at South Point.

He also was watching BowlTV the night Team USA 2019 was introduced.

Yes, he was heartbroken not hearing his name, but he wasn't mad. He was motivated.

From there, 2019 would be about showing everyone how hard he can work and what an asset he could be. It was immediate preparation for his next opportunity to make the team, which he expected to be this week's 2020 Team USA Trials at the Gold Coast Bowling Center.

Early in 2019, Johnson's phone rang again. One more time, he was stunned by the life-changing message being delivered, this time, in the best possible way.

The call was to invite him back to Team USA for the remainder of 2019 and to the Pan Am Bowling Men's Championships in Peru.

The opportunity gave Johnson a chance to pay forward the things he'd learned from Jones and longtime Team USA member Chris Barnes. He hoped to be a leader to the young team he'd be traveling with and wanted to prove he was worthy of the invitation.

The opportunity was the spark Johnson needed, and his performance in Lima was jaw-dropping.

He came away with gold medals in doubles, team and all-events, all with record performances.

"I was sitting in the airport waiting to fly home from an event where I almost made the show but left wondering exactly what I had to do for things to finally start going my way," Johnson said. "I really wasn't expecting that call, but I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity. I love Team USA and want to contribute any way I can. I felt like a veteran at the event, and it was a new role for me. I felt like I had a purpose again. It ended up being some of the sickest bowling I've ever been a part of, and I still can't even wrap my head around what we actually did there."

Johnson returned to the United States with confidence worth far more than its weight in gold medals, and that carried over into his PBA competition.

As the recent calendar year wound down, Johnson again was on top of the world, having defeated Barnes in a nail-biter, 245-244, to win the 2019 Korea Professional Bowlers Association DSD Samho Cup.

It didn't count as an official PBA Tour title, but it showed Johnson he could win after a runner-up finish at the 2015 USBC Masters and a recent heartbreaking second-place finish at the 2019 Storm PBA/Professional Women's Bowling Association Striking Against Breast Cancer Mixed Doubles.

Johnson got closer to another special win in November at the non-PBA Tour title invitation-only PBA China Tiger Cup Invitational, where he fell to Sean Rash in the championship match.

Regardless, Johnson returned home from China ready for 2020, which began with another change in ball companies, this time with a long-term contract.

Because the PBA schedule was adjusted for this year, Johnson is able to be at the 2020 Team USA Trials. He's hoping to bowl his way onto the team, so there's no wondering if his growing resume is enough.

Through three days of competition at Gold Coast, Johnson was 29th in the overall standings and needing to finish the five-day event with two big performances.

"My recent success really has boosted my confidence and jumpstarted a lot of things for me, both professional and on the lanes," Johnson said. "I stuck to my process and knew good things would happen if I worked hard. I still battle some of the things from the last couple of years, and I have good days and bad days, but things are moving in the right direction. If I am able to make Team USA again in 2020, that would be another huge step and accomplishment."