Even as a little girl, Tanji Johnson Bridgeman knew what she would do when she grew up. Her father, a self-proclaimed army brat, served in the US Army and that meant traveling the world for his career. She looks back fondly on her childhood because it enabled her father to move away from Georgia, and he was the first to do so.
"He was raised by his grandmother in the Atlanta Hoods because his mother had him when she was 16," Bridgeman said. “He grew up in a bad neighborhood and in poverty. He later became the one to lead by example because he dropped out and had a family with well educated kids.”
Courtesy of Tanji Johnson
Bridgeman proudly shared that she was lucky that her father was serving and they were able to travel to Germany, Korea, Louisiana and other places before retiring to the state of South Carolina. As for Tanji, after taking junior ROTC classes in high school, she decided to serve in the United States Air Force and followed in the footsteps of one of her brothers. Aside from serving her country, it laid a foundation for her to go to college if she wanted to. she
"My dad said I had a few options. I could get a four-year scholarship through the ROTC program, or you could be like your brother and get a full ride, straight into one of the military academies," she said. After her father suggested the Air Force, she took that advice.
In five years of service, Bridgeman received multiple awards including the Air Force Achievement Medal and the National Defense Service Medal. She recalled that her proudest moment on duty was when she was deployed to England in the late 1990s during the Kosovo crisis. As a lieutenant, she was responsible for over 200 soldiers and eight aircraft capable of supporting troops in action.
“It was a moment when you realized you were part of something much bigger than yourself. Our mission was to fuel the fighters who went into danger. We have been abroad in this supporting role. I just remember how important it was to me to be a part of something really important.”
After ending her military career, Johnson pursued another passion - fitness. With her Air Force Academy cheer experience as her foundation, she took that commitment to the highest level by becoming an IFBB Pro in the early days of the fitness division. Johnson not only competed, but was also very successful as a professional athlete. She had won 11 professional competitions and appeared on the Olympic stage on numerous occasions. She placed second at the Olympics in 2011 and 2015. Her career highlight might come when she won the prestigious Fitness International title at the Arnold Classic in Columbus, Ohio in 2013.
"I will never forget that moment because I cried. Arnold (Schwarzenegger) came up to me and asked why I was crying. I took the microphone and told him I had waited ten years for him to shake my hand.”
Courtesy of Tanji Johnson
While it took a decade to create that moment, Bridgeman said she wouldn't change a thing. She saw her fitness career progressing in a similar way to what she did at the Air Force Academy.
“It's the crème de la crème that comes into the academy. So you already think you're all that and a bag of chips, but they fuck you up. Then they gradually build you up again. I see my fitness career the same way. I got my Pro card quickly but then it took so long to get that Arnold win.”
Bridgeman is no longer a competitor, but she still serves as a leader in the bodybuilding community, particularly in the Pacific rthwest. While competing, she had also started promoting shows. She now owns and operates the Tanji Johnson Classic, which has become a respected amateur title in NPC. Johnson not only wants to pay back the industry for how she's helped it, she wants to improve it for future competitors.
"I love what the industry has done for me in terms of personal growth, how it has helped me as an entrepreneur and how it has really enriched my life," she shared. "When things happen that aren't always positive, you can give it up or be the light. I want to be the light I've always been someone who does something for change.”
Bridgeman keeps himself in shape, training with dumbbells, bodyweight and other methods found outside of a gym. She may not compete, but she knows the importance of health and fitness as she gets older. With vember being National Military Fitness & Wellness Month, she hopes she can be an example for other veterans who will also improve. She believes this begins with finding something to get excited about as you transition from military service to the next phase of life.
"That can be a struggle for some people because some people don't even know what they're going to do. If they don't find the same self-esteem or value, it can be difficult," she explained. “After ending my competitive career, I gave myself permission to be gentle with my body and take the time to see what my physical fitness would be like after retirement. We as service members need to have that self-love and take those same steps to be able to take care of ourselves for those we love.
Courtesy of Tanji Johnson
Bridgeman also wants future service members to do their best in the years to come. As a former Admissions Advisor for the Air Force Academy, she specialized in meeting people who wanted to join the military. Those who will serve will follow in the footsteps she helped build.
“When people are waiting to find out who they want to become, that waiting time is very important. You can waste it or be productive. These young people can join the military and serve short-term, which can be a route to transition. I thought I would be a lifer, but then I developed a passion to be a professional athlete and embarked on a career of which I am very proud. This option is also available for young people.”
Follow Tanji on Instagram @officialtanjijohnson.