Shawn Johnson has a lot of fans. For good reason. She is the 2007 gymnastics all-around world champion and the winner of four medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. One of those medals, on the balance beam, is gold. In 2009, she won "Dancing With the Stars." Shawn Johnson is the whole package. From the get-go, she has represented herself, her family and her country with class and style.
When Shawn announced almost two years ago that she was going to try to mount a comeback for the 2012 London Games, many of her fans assumed she would be a lock for the U.S. team.
Shawn has known better, and for a long time. So have many gymnastics insiders. The knee she blew out in a skiing accident celebrating her 18th birthday was going to make it that much tougher. So would the extended time off from the gym.
Now, with the London Games about 100 days away, 20-year-old Shawn is diligently working out, once more in the same West Des Moines, Iowa, gym, and again under the tutelage of coach Liang Chow. The aim is clear. The will is there. But, in a frank and revealing conversation Friday, she acknowledged she very well might not make the 2012 U.S. team.
"My biggest goal," she said, referring to the U.S. team, "is for them to get the gold medal.
"If I am not part of the team, I have to accept that."
Which, she said, she has, fully and completely.
"I am OK with that. It's what's best for the USA. It's not what's best for me."
She added a moment later, "It just happens that this time around it's not about the individual part of it. It's about the team. A lot of people might be in shock: 'Oh, Shawn might not be on the team.' They need to understand the bigger picture of it."
Here is the bigger picture:
The U.S. team won the 2011 world championships. Shawn was not on that team.
Jordyn Wieber, who is 16, from East Lansing, Mich., was the 2011 all-around world champion. Beyond which, Americans won gold on vault (McKayla Maroney, 16, of Long Beach, Calif.) and bronze on beam (Wieber) and floor exercise (Aly Raisman, 17, of Needham, Mass.).
Nastia Liukin, the 2008 Olympic all-around champion, has said she intends to be fighting for a spot on the 2012 Olympic team. As will be the 2005 world champion, Chellsie Memmel. And the 2009 world champion, Bridget Sloan. And a six-time world medalist, Rebecca Bross. And Alicia Sacramone, who -- along with Nastia, Shawn, Chellsie and Bridget (and Samantha Peszek) made up the silver medal-winning 2008 U.S. team -- was also the 2010 world vault champion.
As if that wasn't enough, there's now one less spot available on the 2012 team. In 2008 there were six spots on each team. In 2012, because of a rules change by the international gymnastics federation, only five.
That means each girl has to fit within what is truly an Olympic puzzle piece. If, for instance, Wieber is the all-around candidate -- though logical, that is necessarily an if -- then you have to figure who ought to fill the other slots.
To win the team gold, the puzzle demands specialists, and Shawn -- as she readily acknowledges -- is an all-arounder.
To add to the complexity, there's one more rising star, and Shawn not only knows this all too well but is rooting for her, and big-time:
Gabby Douglas, 16, who is from Virginia Beach, Va., but now trains with Shawn and under Chow in Iowa.
In New York in March, at an event called the American Cup at Madison Square Garden, Jordyn was the official winner, with Aly second. But Gabby, competing unofficially as an "alternate," posted the highest score.
"Honestly, at first through this whole comeback and being back in the gym, it was a little different -- being honest, it was a little difficult to accept," having Gabby there, Shawn said.
"It was almost like sharing a parent for the first time," she said.
She laughed. "Honestly, I have grown to love it and love her like a sister," indeed saying she is now Gabby's "biggest fan and cheerleader."
At competitions, Shawn said, "I'm extremely nervous" for Gabby. It's as if she, Shawn, is "the older sister." Shawn said that when Gabby competes, she "is closing my eyes and praying."
Just the way thousands upon thousands of fans have always done for Shawn.
If they don't get the chance to do that again this summer in London for Shawn, Shawn said -- please understand.
It's not that she's not trying to make it happen. She is in the gym. She is working hard.
But the situation is what it is.
Shawn said she has known with certainty since the 2011 worlds how daunting a prospect it was going to be to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
"It started to not necessarily upset me or give me doubt or anything -- but the whole picture and the whole process of how it was going to work and the who-fits-where kind of thing, and [how] it would be very difficult for me to fit into this puzzle.
"They have a strong all-arounder in Jordyn Wieber. She was as strong as I was in 2008. To find a place for me to fit in is hard. I am not saying that but-for-the-grace-of-God or a miracle it couldn't happen. But it will be difficult."
A few moments earlier, asked how she was feeling about the prospect of not making the team, she said, "I actually feel pretty good about it, which a lot of people say is weird. I have accepted any outcome since I started coming back. I have accepted how things work.
"Honestly, going back to that first competition" -- a meet in Chicago last July -- "was the biggest success to me."