January 24, 2008

Shawn Johnson: America's next great gymnast

Shawn Johnson seems to be a typical sophomore at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa.

She enjoys going to every Valley football game she can. Johnson, who turned 16 last Saturday, goes to all the dances and loves shopping with her friends. She also is a diligent student with talents in math and a love for English. She puts a great deal of emphasis on her homework above all else.

Then again, typical sophomores don't get asked for autographs when they go out for dinner. Typical sophomores don't appear on The Today Show or Ellen. Johnson - who is all of 4 feet 8 - is the world's top-ranked female all-around gymnast.

America's Next Great Gymnast
Shawn Johnson, who just turned 16, is poised to be the next woman to carry the torch of American gymnastics. Check out this photo gallery of Johnson and her incredible athletic ability.
At the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, in September, Johnson became just the fourth U.S. woman to win the world all-around title, following Kim Zmeskal (1991), Shannon Miller (1993-94) and Chellsie Memmel (2005).

Like many U.S. gymnasts before her, Johnson could be America's next sweetheart.

"It made me feel the most proud to know that I was representing the U.S.A. and everything was paying off," she said of her first-place finish in the World Championships. "In my eyes, I've never failed because I've never given anything less than my best."

Johnson's performance helped the U.S. women win the world title, just the second time that has happened. She also won the gold in the floor exercise at the meet.

Johnson began her gymnastics career when she was 3. Looking for a way for their daughter to release excess energy, her parents enrolled her in a dance class. Eventually, that wasn't enough, so Johnson turned to gymnastics. She enrolled at Chow's Gymnastics and Dance - owned and operated by Qiao Liang, a Chinese gymnastics star in the late 1980s - when she was 6, and Liang remains her coach.

"He's everything - he's my coach, my second parent, my friend," Johnson said.

On a typical day, Johnson wakes up at 6 a.m. to finish homework and get to school by 7:30. She leaves school at noon so she can eat lunch and do some homework before she practices from 2:30-6:30. She then goes home to eat dinner and do more homework. On Saturdays, she's typically at the gym for six hours.

Great Gymnasts of the Past
Johnson remembers the past, but wants to carve out her own place in Olympic history as well. Check out this photo gallery featuring those who came before her, like the legendary Mary Lou Retton.
She practices every day but Sunday, but even on Johnson's day off, gymnastics still follows her.

"When we go out to a restaurant, people will come up to her and ask her for her autograph," Johnson's father, Doug, said. "It's kind of cool."

Johnson's efforts will culminate at the Olympic trials in June in Philadelphia. Though the favorite to represent the United States in the women's all-around competition at the Summer Games in Beijing in August, she will go into the Trials with the mentality that she will have to earn her spot.

Johnson guarantees one thing: She'll be nervous.

"I don't think I've ever not gotten nervous," she said. "When you work so hard for one special day or routine, you want to perform it better than you ever have. We always say at our gym, 'If you lose the nerves, you lose the sport.' "

Still, Johnson doesn't figure to lose anything.

"I think going into any competition, I'm always thinking of myself and not paying attention to others," she said. "I don't feel any different from the first day I started. I love what I do and I don't let anything affect me."

Though Johnson already has had success on a worldwide level, it will be hard to diminish the magnitude of the Olympic Trials.

"Knowing that I will have worked for about 12 years for these games - just making the team would be the biggest honor," she said.

Johnson doesn't measure the sport by accomplishments, press clippings or medals. She measures it by how much enjoyment it gives her.

"What leads my career is that you can't succeed in something unless you're having fun," she said. "I love my sport and that really has helped me to get where I am today."

Today, she's a world champion. In June, she should become an Olympic athlete. And in August, chances are she'll be in the hunt for a gold medal.

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