The Johnson family—mother, senior pro pickleball player, Julie Johnson, and her two pro pickleball playing kids, JW Johnson and Jorja Johnson—are taking the pro pickleball world by storm, so much so that they may even be solving the age-old question of nature versus nurture.
A few years ago, the Johnsons moved from Kansas to Florida in pursuit of a tennis career for teenager, JW Johnson. While not exactly like being ripped away from Kansas like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the Johnsons knew no one in their new home in Naples, Florida. Starting from scratch, and looking for ways to engage in their new community, the Johnsons—which also included Jack Johnson, Julie’s husband and JW’s and Jorja’s father—would go play pickleball as a family. Through pickleball, the Johnsons quickly started meeting new people and making new friends.
Then, not long after, the Johnsons moved again to the east coast of Florida to Delray Beach. Again, knowing no one, they turned to the sport of pickleball to help meet people and make new friends. This was particularly beneficial for the matriarch, Julie, as pickleball (as compared to tennis) allowed her to get “out” and “drop in” to play based on her busy schedule of running around JW and Jorja to their various activities. For a long time, the Johnsons, while they enjoyed the sport of pickleball, did not think much more of it than a fun activity that they could do together and with their community in and around their busy schedules.
Then, the first of the Johnsons to get deep into the sport and start to compete at pickleball tournaments across the country was Julie. Julie was asked by friend and now mixed doubles partner, Mircea Morariu, to play at a few pickleball tournaments in the senior pro division. To which, Julie responded, “What?,” as she didn’t even know that was a possibility and the idea of playing pro pickleball never crossed her mind. Plus, she didn’t really have the time, as her first priority is and was always her kids and their endeavors.
While Julie was the first to consider playing on a higher level, her kids, JW and Jorja, were not far behind. During the COVID pandemic, with all of tennis shut down and nowhere to play (unless you knew someone with a private court), pickleball was still happening on some level. The Johnsons, along with friend, Mircea, would scour across the Palm Beach County area playing pickleball together, which even included temporary nets on parking lots. Pickleball was one of the few things that they could do, as they would play largely with their family unit. So, JW and Jorja were able to play a lot of pickleball. Then, when the tennis world opened back up, JW, in particular, had one foot in each of the pickleball world and the tennis world. JW was in a place where he needed to pick whether to continue his pursuit of becoming a tennis pro, or pivot to becoming a pickleball pro. For Jorja, pickleball quickly became an avenue to meet so many people and make so many friends, especially as more and more young people entered the sport and pickleball started to gain traction with the younger generations.
After some waffling post-COVID, the Johnsons are now “all in” on pickleball. As an aside, JW was probably the one that had the hardest time with the decision to pursue pickleball because of his tennis ambitions. However, as Julie summed it up when helping her son with this decision, “Tennis doesn’t need you, JW. Pickleball needs you.” Although Julie would have supported anything JW wanted to do, JW obviously decided to pursue pro pickleball, along with his mother and sister, and, according to Julie, JW smiles way more on the pickleball court than on the tennis court.
If you follow pro pickleball, then you have certainly heard their names. Julie Johnson has taken home multiple triple crowns on the senior pro circuit, and JW Johnson (who is still just a teenager) is quickly rising the ranks in the pro pickleball tour, as he has medaled across the pro tours and even was the one to break Ben Johns’ pro men’s singles winning streak, which lasted over a year. Jorja Johnson, the youngest of the bunch, is also breaking into the pro women’s scene and is looking for her first pro pickleball title.
Reflecting on their time in the pro pickleball realm to date, Julie is appreciative of how welcoming the pickleball community has been—from welcoming them to new homes in Naples and Delray Beach, to welcoming them across the country as they travel to climb the pro pickleball rankings. She also values all of the life lessons that the sport of pickleball has given her kids, as they have experienced certain life lessons in fast forward by being placed in the “adult” world of pickleball (her two teenagers are competing against adults in their 20s to 40s in most instances). Plus, they have new friends that help get JW and Jorja out of their shells (notably, partner Jonny Goldberg has helped JW get out of his shell and open up on and off the pickleball court). And, above all, pickleball is something that they can all pursue together as a family.
While Julie is doing her best to support her kids and get out of their way of spreading their wings, she is also balancing playing herself, which she says she has learned how to balance the two the hard way. For instance, imagine playing a senior pro match, while your daughter is playing a pro women’s match on the pickleball court next to you against two very high-profile players, and your daughter is winning. Any mom would have a hard time focusing on anything other than her kid—whether it be looking up to watch a point, listening to the score, or generally being distracted—which is not conducive to Julie playing her best pickleball or being the best pickleball partner. And, this has happened to Julie more than once. She even has been late to matches because she gets caught up watching and cheering on her kids.
Julie also has to help with logistics (for instance, arriving on time, which is usually at a different time than her start time, making for some long days on the pickleball court), as well as simple things like making sure the kids have food and water. To help her keep the balance, her husband, Jack, attends tournaments to support the kids when possible, and, keeping with the theme of the welcoming pickleball community, fellow pickleball players on the tour always tell her and the kids to find them and they will help get whatever the kids need (whether it be water or otherwise).
Looking to the future, Julie’s goals with the sport of pickleball are to be involved with her kids and support them in this pickleball pursuit in whatever way they need, while also playing competitively herself for as long as she can. She wants to challenge herself to get better and improve her style of play (which includes aggressive shots and sometimes unconventional shots as a rare lefty on the senior pro tour). She also wants to be the best pickleball partner she can be.
With these goals in mind, Julie is up for the challenge of managing both being a mom to pro pickleball players and being a pro pickleball player herself. To do so, Julie may need to heed the advice of her kids, which Julie believes would be to “chill out”—probably hard to do for any mother. Julie will also have to continue to laugh at herself and not take herself too seriously, as JW and Jorja love to make a joke at Julie’s expense (which they have a lot of opportunity to do so, since they spend so much time together traveling and playing pickleball). However, this will not be too hard for Julie with her personality, as, if you have ever been on the pickleball court with Julie, you certainly laughed your way through the game.
And, while we, as a pickleball community, agree with Julie—the pickleball world needs more people like JW and Jorja—and we hope JW and Jorja continue to pursue pickleball, if they decide that they want to pursue something else, we know Julie will be on the sideline supporting them in any way she can (logistical, financial, guidance, or otherwise). She will also be there giving the same advice that she does to them on the pickleball court, which is to “Remember who are and who you are representing… the Johnsons. So, be nice and always keep your integrity. Don’t let anyone take that from you.” (*This is solid motherly advice that we could probably all use).
If you want to catch the Johnsons in action in their pickleball affair, follow them on the pro pickleball tours, which include the APP Tour (including the NextGen Series) and the PPA Tour. The Johnsons will have a full schedule next year, with about two pickleball tournaments per month, and, with all three playing on the pro scene, one will probably be on the court playing at any given time.