Liang Chow

Shawn Johnson: "Time ran out"

Two and a half years ago, the gymnast Shawn Johnson went on a ski trip to Beaver Creek, Colo. On the very last run of the day, everybody else in her group went down an expert run. Shawn, who by then had become a pretty good skier herself, opted to go down a super-easy trail. Everyone else made it down safely.

About halfway down her run, though, Shawn lost control. The safety release on her ski didn't work; her ski caught in the snow; and she rolled over on her left knee. At that instant her knee popped.

That pop led directly to the announcement Sunday that pretty much everyone in American gymnastics knew was coming, had even already accepted but had nonetheless been dreading: Shawn Johnson, 20 years old, was retiring.

She said on a conference call with reporters: "Time ran out. I had to accept the fact it wasn't a possibility any more."

The timing here is everything. The U.S. nationals get underway this week. Shawn wanted this announcement out there so that the spotlight would, appropriately enough, be on those competing, not on her.

She'd had a conversation Friday with her longtime coach, Liang Chow; there had been ongoing conversations with Martha Karolyi, the U.S. team national coordinator. Everyone was assessing the upsides and, at the same time, the hard truths:

Shawn Johnson was an able, gutsy competitor. She won four medals in Beijing, three silver, one gold. She was the 2007 world all-around champion. As Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics, would put it on the call Sunday, Shawn "always delivered ... she was always going to be there with tons of guys and ready to go."

After taking two years off from gymnastics, after winning "Dancing With the Stars," after the ski wipe-out, she came back to the sport and made the Pan Am team last fall with her eye on London.

But the knee just would not cooperate.

It was a "constant fight" all along with the knee, she said, adding at another point in the call, "Talking to Chow and talking to Martha and coming to reality, I couldn't push myself any further."

Asked about making the 2012 team, she said: "It would have taken everything I had, and it would have taken luck."

What's next remains immediately unclear. Shawn is dead-set to go to college. Moreover, she doubtlessly will continue to have sponsor opportunities because her agent, Sheryl Shade, has done a terrific job behind the scenes over the years and she is, as Penny said, the embodiment of the "girl next door."

In the near future, Shawn predicted that the U.S. women's team -- whoever is ultimately on it -- will be the one to beat in London. She said she intends to be their "biggest cheerleader."

Who knows why somebody with unbelievable balance fell down and popped her knee on a ski run she surely should have had no trouble handling? Life works in mysterious ways.

To Shawn Johnson's credit, she has always been extraordinarily gracious in dealing not just with the injury but the aftermath and the inquiries about it. Of which there was, naturally, one more on Sunday.

No surprise, she was a class act: "Everything happens for a reason. I can't take it back. I can't regret it."

Shawn Johnson puzzles her future

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."

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.

"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."