A Playground of Iron and Steel: An interview with Sherrvell Ms.Boss Johnson;Competitive Bodybuilder
At 8:00am the school bell rung, and the students at Alexander Street School closed their lockers and rushed to their first class. Their math teacher was already there with her objectives for the math course written on the board. “Good morning Ms.Johnson”, the students would say as they entered the classroom. Sherrvell Johnson stood in front of the board in her nicely tailored black slacks made to fit her short frame, a 3/4 sleeve button up blouse and black sweater that exposed her toned biceps. Prior to class Johnson had finished an intense early morning training session at the gym at 5am, then she would head to school eager to go over geometric equations with her with her seventh graders.
“At 5am I she’s Beast then at 8am she turns into a lady. Gotta know how to switch those roles when needed!”
Sherrvell Johnson is strong. When she enters a room you can’t help but admire her athletic build, and you’ll probably think to yourself I bet she can compete. Well she has! Anyone can have a dream but its quite a feat that Johnson challenged herself to go from being an everyday school teacher to a competitive body builder and trainer.
Throughout the day Johnson followed her strictly scheduled meals which she prepared in advance at the start of each week. While the kids hit the playground she grabbed her lunch bag for a meal enriched with green veggies and lean protein. After classes she led an after school program then at 6pm she was able to rush to a playground of her own that was made of iron and steel.
As she enters the doors of Diamond Gym it’s no longer Ms. Johnson, in the world of fitness she goes by Ms.Boss. Once changed into her black stretch pants, black and pink nike sneakers, and magenta race back workout top, she is ready to kick into high gear. All around the room you can hear the clamoring of weights smashing into one another as someone had completed their set. Clanak, clank, clank, it almost creates a harmony with the sounds of the grunts the athletes make while lifting double their weight in metal. She puts in her earphones and from the speakers JayZ’s 2009 hit “Breath EZ/ Lyrical Exercise” plays to get her in the zone. The song is filled with tons of plays on words comparing JayZ’s attitude of being the best rapper in the game to the feeling of a top notch athlete in their prime; Johnson describes the cocky hip hop arrangement as her theme song. If its leg day you may find her using lower body strength to perform leg presses which entails her pushing a 720 pounds barbell containing 16 plated weights. However, during training season leg presses could mean using her quads to complete 3 reps of pushing 1080 pounds. After a workout Johnson would literally be drenched in sweat which she sees as a symbol of strength, hard work, and dedication. After 51 minutes and 593 calories burned on the spin bike Ms. Boss says,
“If you don’t have a puddle of sweat under that spin bike you might want to look into how hard you’re working!”
Johnson has been into athletics ever since she started playing basketball in high school as a teenager. In her early twenties while in college she continued to play basketball as a hobby and also stayed active by teaching classes at the gym. She taught spinning, boot camp, weight training, and cardio conditioning. As an education major she knew that this form of teaching would foreshadow a career in primary and secondary education but little did she know it would one day lead to a lifestyle of competitive bodybuilding. Although those activities shaped her relationship with fitness, Johnson believes that she was simply born to be an athlete. When she first visited the gym she didn’t even have a membership, she had no idea what she was doing but yet people would walk up to her saying she had such good form and asked if she was a trainer. Johnson simply watched what the guys in the gym were doing and she replicated it. It wasn’t until her thirties that she took her natural abilities to the next level.
In 2011 she began training to run marathons. She ran her very first race on April 20th of 2011 at the Branch-brook Cherry Blossom marathon. Within a year she completed 5 more races including the 2012 Philadelphia marathon, and she watched her body begin to transform in the process. On October 28, 2012 she completed the Maryland Marine Corp Marathon by running 26.2 miles in four hours.Johnson says she crossed the marathon with tears in her eyes as she embraced her then 16 year old son who was proud to see his mom finish the race.
With all this exciting training she was still balancing her life as a mom and a teacher and sometimes those worlds would collide. It was actually a fellow teacher who planted the idea of bodybuilding in her mind. Johnson said a coworker of hers came up to her one day at school and said “Hey, have you ever thought about bodybuilding?” The idea of bodybuilding was so far fetch to Johnson at the time, she actually said her response was “Eww, I don’t want to look like a man.” Johnson explained, “To the average person, and I was an average person at the time, thats what comes to mind, but my co-worker explained to me that this was a misconception and he said, ‘I really think that you would be great for bodybuilding you have the right body for it, you should look into it.’ ” That conversation sunk in well with Johnson and before she knew it she was training for her first competition.
Although hesitant about the idea initially, it only took for her to attend one body building competition just to see the action for herself, for her to realize that this was a sport that she wanted to do. At first she told herself she would give herself a year to start training but her desire was so strong that in november of 2012, three months after seeing her first show, she had begun training to enter her first competition. The first step Johnson had to take was changing her diet and she said this was the hardest part. In general she loved eating and as a runner she says she was able to eat what she wanted to get energy because she was just able to burn it off through running. However, training for a bodybuilding competition was another story; she had to eat lean and clean and on a tight schedule. Everywhere the 32 year old went she had to carry her meal bag and a gallon of water. Johnson could only eat the food that she prepared herself and she ate several small meals a day. Johnson says if a meal is skipped its hard not to become very irritable. She sets her alarm just to wake up to eat. Her first meal starts at 6:30am, in fact we had our interview at 7am in order to coordinate with her eating and workout schedule.
Another challenge was getting use to training more than 2 times a day. Its certainly not easy to train for a competition but if you followed Johnson on social media during her training, her dedication and love for the lifestyle made it look like she had been doing it for years. While she was able to make it look easy she says that adopting the lifestyle came with a sacrifice. Johnson says,
My coach told me ‘some people will not be able to relate to your lifestyle and in the process you will lose some people in your life.’ And it happened immediately some people I was very close ever since high school suddenly lost touch. I had to become very selfish with my time but thats how it is with anything you do. As a professional you have to be selfish. When Arnold Schwarzenegger lost his father during his training he didn’t even go to the funeral, and at first I didn’t understand that but now I get it. If you have a competition, you cant just stop training.
While there were people who didn’t understand Johnson ’s new lifestyle she had loving family and friends who were there to support her through her first competition and beyond. Johnson says that her supporters are her family, her mom, her son, her father, her boyfriend, her coach, her trainer and her gym family. Johnson says her support system is strong she even includes in that list of support, her fellow competitors, they compete against each other during events but afterward they have continued to be friends. According to Johnson , “When doing something different people will give you a million and one reasons why you can’t, why you shouldn’t and why not to do it. Those are called your haters. Very few people will give you the reasons you should, could and need to do it, those are your friends and supporters.”
Ms.Boss was on her way to entering the NPC Physique Bodybuilder Competition. She explained to me the different levels of female bodybuilding.There is Bikini, Figure, Physique (which is Johnson’s level) and Bodybuilder. After months of preparation and hardcore training on April 13, 2013 Johnson took to the big stage for the amateur competition. Confidently and robustly she strutted her stuff to Alicia Key’s “Girl On Fire” song which was exemplary of Johnson ’s performance. All of her months of training had paid off. “The Boss” placed third out of four. Johnson says she felt accomplished and even more motivated to get first place. Although this qualified her to now go to the national level Johnson wanted to win first place on the amateur level before she moves on to the national stage. So she wasted no time she saw where she needed to improve and she began training for her next competition which was only 4 months away.
While preparing for her next show she was motivated by the thought of becoming a professional bodybuilder. “As I see the difference in my body over time I know I am getting closer to reaching my goal.” says Johnson. So for the next few months, day after day, she trained hard “like a beast” and ate with amazing discipline. She says that during her first show it didn’t really hit her of how much dedication it would take to make the lifestyle change. As she continued to get stronger even her students began to notice. She described a day in class saying ,
My student whispered to her peer, ‘Ms Johnson has a lot of muscles!’ I heard her but didn’t say anything. The other young lady says, ‘I’m going to just ask…Ms Johnson are you a bodybuilder?’ I say yes, she says, ‘I didn’t know black females could be bodybuilders and be pretty!’ By the look on her face I think I may have just inspired her! I love these kids they need to see positive success.
And soon enough Ms. Johnson would be able to inspire her students with her newest accomplishment.On August 17, 2013 it was round two for Sherrvell Johnson at the NPC Physique Bodybuilder Competition. She entered the room in a beautiful sequin multicolor bikini. She sports her edgy tattoos, one of which is the Superwoman S logo on her shoulder. All eyes are on Johnson and her energetic routine that brings the audience to applause. Her final song is Nikki Minaj’s “Moment for Life” and this is definitely a moment in life she won’t forget. After deliberation the Judges place their scores and this modern day Superwoman places fourth out of seven. This was quite the accomplishment to place high two times in a row, but as you can imagine while Johnson was living up this moment she was already thinking ahead to the next competition.
Johnson had an entire year before her next competition but that wasn’t the only thing significant about that year. 2013-2014 would also be her last year as a teacher. After 15 years Ms.Johnson, the teacher who all the students loved, decided that she had to go where her heart was leading her. Johnson wanted to develop a career in personal training.
Honestly I started getting tired of teaching and in the last 5 years I was a little burned out. I was afraid to step out from teaching because this is what I went to school for. But this last school year I realized my heart was not into teaching. I love the kids, but I had to see where full time training would lead me. Other teachers always told me ‘you are lucky you have something you love and since you do, you should go for it.’
In the summer of 2014 the fitness queen was training hardcore as well as providing personal training sessions to clients twice a week. While she was training for this past show, she realized how much it really took to become the best.
I had to realize you have no life this is your life! I would be in the gym three times a day five days out of the week. You can try to have a life, but really what kind of life would it be to walk around everywhere, to parties or movies with 2 gallons of water and meal bags. Its hard to carry around your food and I have to eat at particular times of day so I rather just focus on what I am doing, this is my life”
On August 16, 2014 what she had been dedicating her life too was going to be put to the test for a third time. The transformation Ms.Boss had made with her body in just one year was incredible. On center stage was a beautiful woman in a pink tiny two piece with huge glistening muscles bulging on every part of her anatomy. She wowed the crowd and the judges once again landing her in 3rd place.
Its especially amazing to see women ruling the stage confidently in a field that has traditionally been dominated by men. Sherrvell Ms.Boss Johnson is an inspiration to many women both young and old who want to adopt a fit lifestyle. Currently in between seasons she is working towards her personal training certification. Through faith and prayer Johnson says that her bold move to transition from being a teacher to a personal trainer worked out even when she had her apprehension. Instantly she received a job as a trainer at Golds Gym in Teterboro New Jersey and a number of clients who were interested in working with her. After a year and a half of hardcore training and competing it is impressive to see how far Johnson has come in the field of fitness and bodybuilding and I can’t wait to see her make it to the top.
Typically it is the teacher who is asking the question to students of what they want to be, but in the case of Sherrvell Johnson she knew that it is never to late for even the teacher to realize their own dreams and go for it. Everyday she continues to challenge herself and she expects that in the next two years she will win first place on the amateur level, compete in the national level and her long term goal is to compete in the Olympia which she describes as the Super Bowl of bodybuilding competitions. The winner of the Olympia will be named the best in the world and that is Ms.Boss’s ultimate aspiration. Once Johnson is in the professional level of competition she is likely to receive sponsors and endorsements but even before that happens she is content in doing what she loves.