A sophomore on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln women’s gymnastics team hoped moving from Parkland, Florida, to Lincoln, Nebraska would give her a fresh start.
Abby Johnston was a senior at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland during the time of its school shooting.
“It’s harder because all of the people who went through the same stuff are back home, so people here (at UNL) don’t really understand,” the pre-health major said.
The shooting happened on Valentine’s Day of 2018, killing 17 people. Johnston said the day was normal except that the students had a fire drill that morning. Johnston said since it was a Wednesday, it was her swing day which meant she could choose whether or not to leave school early for practice.
She decided to leave early.
Later at practice while warming up, Johnston and a few of her teammates were talking about what would happen if the drill was real.
“We never talk about that stuff,” Johnston said. “It still gives me the chills.”
The girls were unaware of the shooting at their school, but Johnston’s mom heard the news.
“We didn’t have 100% confidence that she was at the gym, and we couldn’t get ahold of her,” Amy Johnston said.
She called the gym asking for more information.
“I needed to know she was there,” Amy Johnston said.
She checked to make sure the four teammates who also attended Stoneman Douglas were at the gym.
Even after learning of the shooting, the five gymnasts needed to stay at the gym until plans could be made.
“My mom texted me and said, ‘I’m so lucky and thankful that you get to leave school early,’” Abby Johnston said.
Johnston said she bottled up all her emotions for the rest of practice.
“I wanted to feel safe and see my parents and sister, but I was so blessed to be where I was,” Johnston said.
Once she could go home, Johnston spent the rest of the night trying to make sense of it. Seventeen others were injured along with the 17 killed.
Johnston skipped practice on the following day. She was supposed to have a meet on Saturday, but her coach said it was up to her.
“I decided, I’m going to go for it, because those 17 people can’t do what they want, so this meet and the rest of my gymnastics is going to be for them,” Johnston said.
She and a teammate, Alex Greenwald, who now competes for the University of Iowa, came up with an idea to honor the 17 murdered at their meet that weekend.
“They both competed and instead of wearing traditional bows, they made bows in the school colors,” Amy Johnston said.
The girls made T-shirts about soaring. Amy Johnston said it was a beautiful moment.
After the meet, Johnston was left with more time to reflect.
“I knew all of the seniors, but it’s hard regardless of who it is,” Abby Johnston said. “It was a lot of crying and a lot of sleepless nights.”
Johnston’s sister Paige, who was 13 at the time, said she tried to help her sister in any way she could.
“I felt I needed to be by her side,” Paige Johnston said. “She had a hard time sleeping and I wouldn’t want to be by myself if that happened to me.”
The students were out of school for three weeks.
Johnston, her sister and her parents, who worked from home, spent the majority of the time together.
In the weeks following, funerals were staggered and flowers became scarce.
“I understand what survival guilt is,” Amy Johnston said. “It could have just as easily been my husband and I burying our child.”
After their three week break Johnston returned to school. It took her 45 minutes compared to her usual five minutes to get to school because of the high levels of security and support teams.
“I like to stay closed off so when people were trying to support, that made it tougher,” Johnston said.
Even though she feels more comfortable on her own, Johnston said the support from her sister was shockingly helpful.
“If I saw her alone I would go and talk to her,” Paige Johnston said. “I would try to cheer her up and we would have sleepovers and play games together.”
Despite Paige Johnston’s efforts at maintaining normalcy for Johnston, the shooting altered the atmosphere for events like prom and senior parties.
Amy Johnston said it was a very difficult balance to make something special and not ignore the students that are gone.
“I remember her saying, ‘I just don’t think I want to go (to prom),’” Amy Johnston said. “‘How do we go when it was going to be so sad?’”
She feared for her daughter when it was time for Johnston to leave for UNL.
“We went from being a super close family to losing her,” Amy Johnston said.
She said it was very difficult for Johnston’s younger sister when Abby Johnston left for college because the two had spent so much time together.
“We definitely got a lot closer after the fact,” Paige Johnston said. “We talk a lot more now, and I help her out with other things that she is going through.”
Johnston’s family feared without these face-to-face interactions, she would not adjust to UNL. Amy Johnston said she wasn’t the same girl that she was prior to the shooting.
“I’m nervous, always on guard 24/7,” Johnston said. “I’m always thinking of an escape plan.”
Johnston’s parents asked her new coaches to look out for their daughter.
“I am very grateful for the gymnastics program,” Amy Johnston said. “She wasn’t going to fall through the cracks.”
Johnston’s team all know about her situation and they try to be as supportive as possible.
She opened up about the issue during the 2018 team retreat and all were crying together.
“Having a group of girls I can consider my sisters helps a lot,” Johnston said.
Her team continues to help.
“We are one big family. For Valentine’s day this last year, they wrote me a card, and that helped me get what I needed, a distraction,” Johnston said.
This ordeal has changed her outlook on life.
“I just want to go for it and live every moment to the fullest,” Johnston said.