DOWNEY — She was a tomboy, the second oldest of five children. She realized at an early age that getting things she wanted took an effort equal to the reward.
She said she would "fight for everything I got," and in her beloved sport of bowling that often meant practicing three or more hours a day, seven days a week.
That fighting spirit eventually created a life style that knew just one speed.
"I give a 110% effort on everything I do. If I can't do that, then it's not worth doing," she said.
And Letitia (Tish) Johnson, with her self-imposed hard-work ethic, has truly been equal to the reward. She recently became only the third person to be voted female Bowler of the Year in two consecutive seasons by the Southern California Bowling Writers Assn.
Only two other women--both from the Southeast area--have accomplished that feat since the award was first given in 1953. Bobbe North of Downey won back-to-back titles in 1969 and 1970 and Jean Worthy of Norwalk did the same in 1977 and 1978.
Johnson now has a shot at Donna Ademek's record of three straight titles, won from 1980 to 1982.
"I want to achieve every goal and break as many records as possible," she said. "The day I do all of that, I'll retire."
Johnson, who is 26, said she can continue to bowl professionally until "I'm 50 or 60."
A sports accident nearly kept Johnson off the pro bowling circuit. In 1980, while playing basketball as a freshman at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, she suffered a knee injury that many, including an orthopedist handling the case, thought would end her athletic career. Five operations were required to repair cartilage and reattach ligaments that were ripped off her right knee when a teammate accidently fell across her leg during practice.
The prognosis was not good.
The right leg is pivotal to Johnson's delivery. The injured limb serves as her "slide leg," which glides along the boards as she releases the ball down the lane from the opposite side of her body.
During one of the operations, a portion of her kneecap had to be removed. The leg was placed in a full cast and doctors told her that if she walked normally again, it would take six months to a year.
"The doctors told me I possibly could have had a stiff leg," she said.
When the injury occurred, in January, Johnson was priming for a junior amateur bowling tournament that April. She thought she had a good chance to win the tournament, she said, so she determined to show up, even if it killed her.
Shucking her doctors' advice, she concocted her own rehabilitation program. She wrapped two 16-pound bowling balls in a towel and hoisted them--"every chance I had"--with her injured leg. The self-styled program didn't kill her, but it was painful.
The screams "got to the point that I told her, 'If you must do that workout, wait until I go to work first,' " said her mother, Kathy Johnson.
In less than three months Johnson was walking again. She not only made it to the April tournament, she won it. Several months later she turned professional.
Kathy Johnson remembers the first time her daughter rolled a bowling ball. She was 2 1/2 years old and "there were no shoes to fit her."
Johnson toddled onto the polished hardwood in her socks at an alley in Oakland that her father, Roy, was managing.
"She more or less dropped the ball onto the lane," said Kathy Johnson, "and then ran back to us and watched it."
A love affair was born. Johnson said she hung out at the alley "as much as I could," often stopping after school to roll a few games under her father's watchful eye.
When she was 10 the family moved from Hayward to the Napa Valley, where Johnson continued to bowl, eventually joining California's amateur touring circuit. When she turned pro in 1980, her family supported the move. Kathy and Roy Johnson mortgaged their house to provide expense money for the first two years she was on tour.
"We have always been behind her," Kathy Johnson said. "We gave her everything we could so she could compete."
Tish Johnson moved to Southern California six years ago because "there's lots of publicity down here and that's good for my bowling."
She settled in Downey and sought a sponsor, but to find one she had to create more exposure for herself. When she wasn't on tour she was alley-hopping around southeast Los Angeles and western Orange counties, bowling against the area's best non-professional players in money games.
She had several arrangements with potential sponsors, but eventually "the money ran low." Financial concerns hampered her performances during her early years in Southern California.
"Unfortunately, people are not what you'd like them to be all the time," Kathy Johnson said about her daughter's early sponsorship troubles. "I think that affected her bowling a few years ago. She has done a good job in putting that behind her now. She is so strong-willed she can overcome almost anything."