Shawn Johnson’s comeback

Shawn Johnson, the sweet, gosh-don’t-you-just-love-her gymnast from West Des Moines, Iowa, had won the world all-around title the year before the Beijing Games. She was thus widely favored to win the Olympic all-around in 2008.

That didn’t happen.

Shawn’s American teammate, Nastia Liukin, lithe and fluid and evocative, particularly on the uneven bars, won the Olympic all-around.

Women’s gymnastics has a funny way of lending itself to storybook endings, even when they come with a twist or two along the way. Nastia’s fairy tale came true in 2008. Maybe Nastia comes back for 2012; maybe not. maybe not. Shawn, meantime, is emphatically back at it — since Beijing having both enjoyed and endured celebrity stuff, normal teen stuff and a bad, really bad, knee injury.

Shawn Johnson, Olympic medalist, "Dancing With the Stars" champion // photo: Ryan Towle

“I love being able to consider myself an athlete again,” Shawn said the other day on the phone. “I really missed that.”

If Shawn’s knee holds up, talk about storybook. She is both champion athlete and popular culture fixture, winner of “Dancing With the Stars.” She is cute, personable, well-spoken, at ease on camera and off — a great spokeswoman for gymnastics, pretty much everything the sport could ask for over the next 18 months as the London Games draw near.

Again, if the knee holds up — she’ll be chasing the one thing that eluded her in Beijing, the all-around title.

To properly set the scene for this year and next, it’s necessary to re-visit Beijing and 2008, and to understand why Shawn is so much more than cute. She is mentally as tough as they come. Never, ever forget that. Shawn is as tough as forged steel.

The U.S. women, gold medalists at the 2007 world championship in the team competition, took silver at the Olympics, behind the Chinese.

Shawn and Nastia were — they still are — friends. Even so, only one girl gets the all-around gold. Shawn won silver.

Shawn was favored by many to win the floor exercise. She got silver.

So, finally, it came down to the last individual event, the balance beam.

Shawn might well have packed it in. Who would have blamed her, really?

But no.

Shawn may be sweet. But Shawn is so mentally strong that she won gold on the beam. If you don’t think that’s remarkable, keep in mind that the beam is all of four inches wide.

Keep in mind, too, that as a practical matter the beam gold meant Shawn wouldn’t have to do another day of gymnastics in her life. Corporate America would forever see her as “gold medalist Shawn Johnson.”

After Beijing, Shawn — understandably — took time off. She went to L.A. for a while, where she went on, and won “Dancing.” She won multiple awards and did lots of cool stuff.  Eventually, she went back home to Iowa, and did normal teen-age girl stuff, and that — in its way — was excellent, too.

About a year ago, Shawn went skiing. Normal enough. Until she tore up her left knee, big time.

“I had freedom, the chance to try new things, to discover who I was outside the gym,” Shawn said.

“I found out I love dancing. I love going to football games. And being a normal girl. School was a lot of fun for me. Getting ready for college.”

At the same time, she said, “I’m a gymnast. I miss gymnastics. Gymnastics is who I am.”

So many gymnasts have to deal with major injuries. Nastia, for instance, battled a succession of injuries and then peaked, healthy, in Beijing.

This is Shawn’s first major injury. The plan is to bring her along cautiously yet aggressively.

Already there are signs of significant progress. Last week, the U.S. national team for 2011 was named. Shawn is on it.

“She would not be the first gymnast in the country or in the world who has a great return after an injury,” the U.S. women’s team national coordinator, Martha Karolyi, said.

“With her discipline and her dedication and her desire to be the best [that] she can be, she could return and deal with the nagging little things coming from the injury. Also, we can’t forget that she always has a great guidance from her coach, [Liang] Chow.”

Chow and Shawn have worked together since she was a little girl. She is not, however, a little girl anymore. Each, in separate interviews, emphasized that.

Each also stressed that it’s okay — it’s to be expected.

“I am up to the challenge,” Chow said. “But I have to be realistic. And I have to be smart, to give her the best possibilities.”

He added, “She is working hard every day.”

Shawn said, “I’m not the same person. I’m older. I’m more mature. I have a different mindset. I’m basically starting from scratch. Getting back in shape at 19 years old is much harder than 16 years old.”

She said a moment later, “When I was 16, if there was a birthday party, let’s say I would go eat a giant cheeseburger and a sundae; Chow would see me the next day and maybe I would gain a pound or two and he would make it so I would work it off. Now it’s up to me. I’m the one who decides how hard I work. Everything inside and outside the gym is up to me.

“The relationship is definitely different. He respects the fact that I am older and have my own opinions. He can’t treat me as a little girl anymore. We have to work together.”

On the one hand, she said, it’s terrifying. On the other, it’s profoundly liberating. What a story — a teen-age girl grows into a young woman, and chases her dream, and it’s her own dream, not someone else’s.

It’s her very own, and she’s doing it for one reason, and one reason only. She wants it.

“I’m terrified because I have no idea where I’m going or where this is going to end up,” Shawn said. “But it’s liberating because I’m enjoying it and learning so much.”

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