This year at the Top Gun Invitational, the competition was unmatched and the stakes were even higher. This is one of the top showcase events in the country and players from around the country came to Kansas City to compete to win the coveted title of TGI Champion. The hundreds of teams and players competing in this event competed hard but Maya Johnson had her own set of struggles she was bringing with her into this tournament.
Maya Johnson of the 18u Pennsylvania Strikers was diagnosed her sophomore year of high school with a chronic autoimmune disease called Lupus, a rare inflammatory disease that affects mostly the skin, joints, kidneys, and other organs of a person’s body. After a diagnosis such as this one coming at such a young age, it’s easy to understand the uncertainty that follows. “My immediate thoughts were, how am I going to manage this [softball]?” says Johnson. Especially leading into the most crucial recruiting time for girls her age.
Maya had to make many decisions about her diagnosis and the next steps she would be making. None of which came easy. She struggled to decide if she should tell
college coaches about her diagnosis or wait until after she was recruited. would she even be recruited? Could she even continue to play softball anymore? “It’s so demanding at the next level, physically,” added Johnson.
The sport of softball is physically demanding, especially in the hot temperatures that Kansas City reached this week during the tournament, Maya made it a priority to play. Shortly before we spoke to Maya at the Top Gun Invitational, Maya had an episode triggered by her Lupus. She had begun to get overheated during the game and passed out in the dugout. This is just one of the symptoms she experiences regularly.. Sometimes she does not handle the heat as well so she and her teammates always have ice in the dugout ready to put on her neck or wrists to cool her down as quickly as possible and get back to what she loves doing the most, playing softball. She has to know when to push herself and when to pull back. With ice still on her neck from her earlier episode, her coach came up to her to tell her that she cares more about her as a person than a player, which Maya said is something her coaches and teammates tell her often when her struggles with Lupus hit her hard while playing.
“If I am pushing myself too hard then I’m just going to tear my body down more and I’m going to be even less effective,” Maya said about learning how to balance her conditioning and play within her rest periods. The coaches around Maya have been supportive of her and how she can play and push herself throughout this learning process. At the beginning of her journey with Lupus, she tried to hide the pain she was feeling to show she was still strong and nothing was different. She did not want to be seen as a weaker player, but now that her teammates and coaches know what she goes through on a daily basis, off of the field, she finds comfort knowing they are constantly looking out for her and have her back if she needs to step out for a moment and focus on her health first.
With the extra “hurdle” of Lupus, as Maya called it, she felt different from the other women on her team and alone when she was first diagnosed. Though she had been diagnosed with a serious chronic illness, she never let it stop her. Now she doesn’t feel different at all, she knows she has some extra steps she has to take, like icing her neck when needed and taking medicine before she goes on the field.
“It’s not something I see that makes me different from everybody else, it’s just an extra step needed to prepare before I go into games. Some girls listen to meditations, I take my meds before I play.”
Maya continues to have a positive outlook on her diagnosis and tries to work harder than everyone else to keep up with those not dealing with a chronic autoimmune disease. She has chosen to work on all aspects of her game, especially the mental side, to make sure she is doing all she can when she physically cannot do what everyone else is doing, whether that be in the weightroom or on the field.
Her mental health has been an emotional rollercoaster during the first two years post-diagnosis. In the beginning, Maya said her mental health struggled because she had something no one could see but she could feel constantly. Now Maya knows she can do hard tasks, and the hard plays she makes in the games she says are easy compared to the things she does everyday in life.
“Don’t let it stop you” is the word of advice Maya has for others with chronic illnesses who want to play sports. She recommends finding doctors, coaches and teammates that will support the goals and aspirations of those just like her. She says that people can play any sport they want to with a supportive crowd around them like she is lucky enough to have found. She knows her doctors want her healthy and her coaches want her to play, so she is finding a balance as she suggests others do.
Maya’s spirit is contagious for all of those around her and she says that the positive energy within her is made possible with the help of her teammates. Even in a scary moment or a serious situation, she knows she always ends up back on the field doing what she loves. She said, “No matter the situation, I know it will always pass.”
Maya has committed to play Division 1 softball at University of Pittsburgh and continue her education there. She is a left handed pitcher with over 700 career strikeouts and almost 300 of those from this season. She was awarded the title of Cuyahoga County Ohio 2021 pitcher of the year and District Champion for her high school. Maya has an extraordinary future ahead of her and the Top Gun Invitational was lucky to have her and her team in Kansas City.