Martha Karolyi

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."

The Karolyi way -- U.S. women are winners

The biggest name in American gymnastics, the outsized personality, is Bela.

Everyone, it seems, knows Bela Karolyi. In their minds' eye, they can see Bela with Nadia Comaneci, and that was in 1976, well before Bela and his wife, Martha, made their way to the west. They can see Bela with Mary Lou Retton in Los Angeles in 1984. Perhaps most memorably, there is Bela holding Kerri Strug after Kerri's vault in Atlanta in 1996.

Bela is and forever will be Bela.

You know what, though? Martha is formidable, as everyone who is close to the sport has well understood for a very long time, and the American women proved it yet again Tuesday, winning the 2011 team world championship in Tokyo with a roster missing the stars most casual American gymnastics fans have come to know over the past few years.

This was a young team, a new team, and still the Americans didn't miss a beat.

Indeed, by the final rotation, the floor exercise, the U.S. team was so far ahead of the defending world champion Russians that the final American up, 17-year-old Aly Raisman, only had to score better than an 11 -- a really low score in elite gymnastics -- for the U.S. to win. She did, easily, with a 14.666, and the celebration was on.

The Americans finished with 179.411, more than four full points ahead of the Russians, with 175.329. China took third, with 172.820.

The U.S. men, meanwhile, won their first world team medal in eight years on Wednesday -- a bronze, missing silver by a mere 0.010. China won gold, Japan silver.

The 2011 world title matches the gold medals the U.S. women won in 2007 and 2003. It also makes the U.S. women favorites for team gold next summer in London.

"This team victory exemplifies the amazing program that has emerged over the past 11 years under the leadership of Martha Karolyi," Steve Penny, the president and chief executive officer of USA Gymnastics, said.

"The athletes, coaches and everyone connected to the program contributed to this success.  This," he said, "is another very proud moment."

This also underscores, yet again, that the Martha Karolyi way, which means the American way in women's gymnastics, works -- a direct challenge to, for instance, the Chinese, or others, compelled from their youngest years to live away from home, away from their families, and do gymnastics in a state-sponsored system.

Martha is the U.S. team's national coordinator. She and Bela have a ranch down in New Waverly, Texas, out in the woods about an hour's drive north of Houston's international airport.

Here's the essence of the Karolyi way:

Promising gymnasts live at home and train at their local gyms with their own coaches. On a regular basis, they come to the Karolyi Ranch, where the girls train under Martha's watchful eye -- and the coaches, not incidentally, learn and share together.

Make no mistake. Martha is demanding, physically and mentally. And the U.S. selection process, under Martha's direction, is rigorous, intentionally so.

But here is the thing. If Martha is exacting, Martha is not outrageous. There is a fine line, and she walks it. It's why gymnasts who have lived the Karolyi way come back for more, sometimes years later. They know that she not only can but does bring out their best.

At the same time, this, too: gymnastics can be really hard on the body. As this summer proved, that means pressure all around -- on the girls and on Martha, too.

The U.S. selection process included the national championships and then two more competition-style training camps at the Karolyi Ranch.

At the championships, Chellsie Memmel -- who was on the silver medal-winning 2008 U.S. Olympic team -- suffered a shoulder injury on the uneven bars. At the same meet, Rebecca Bross, the 2010 U.S. all-around champion, hurt her knee.

At one of the selection camps, Mackenzie Caquatto hurt her ankle. Then, in Japan, uneven bars specialist Anna Li strained an abdominal muscle; and, finally, almost unbelievably, Alicia Sacramone, the U.S. team captain, tore an Achilles tendon during a practice tumbling pass.

Shawn Johnson, the Olympic gold medalist on the balance beam in 2008? She wasn't available in Tokyo. In the midst of a comeback from a knee injury, she's due to be competing at the Pan Am Games later this month in Mexico.

Nastia Liukin, the all-around gold medalist from Beijing? She wasn't in Tokyo, either. She just announced an intent to mount a comeback for London.

Bridget Sloan, who like Shawn and Nastia was on the 2008 Beijing team? Like Shawn, Bridget will be at the Pan Ams.

Several of the other teams in Tokyo had six healthy athletes. The U.S. women had only five: Raisman; Jordyn Wieber; McKayla Maroney; Sabrina Vega; Gabrielle Douglas.

This kind of intensity is also the Karolyi way.

Raisman gathered the others around and said, in essence, let's do this. "I told all the girls, 'We're going to remember this for the rest of our lives and just to go out there and own it and have fun."

Wieber, the 2011 U.S. all-around champ, said, "We were confident and aggressive and we just did our job. It turned out awesome."

Here's an exclamation point to the awesomeness:

The Americans ended up with 46.816 points on the vault -- more than two points better than any of the other teams, and that without Sacramone, the 2010 world champion in the vault.

Because Sacramone was officially a member of the team, she earned a 10th world championship medal. That's an American record. She had been tied with Liukin and Shannon Miller, with nine.

Martha observed that this was a "very young team" and that they had "prepared physically very well," but "we were not so sure if they would hold up very well under the pressure."

She said, "These girls proved they did the right preparation, physically and mentally," and if you know Martha you know that "mentally" was absolutely the key. "I'm very proud of them."

She also said, "I'm very satisfied. This is my passion. Every time the results come out as you plan, you are certainly extremely happy. That's how I feel today -- happy and proud of the program and of these young ladies."

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."

She's 22, not a grandmother

Before it became the province of girls on the way to becoming women, it used to be that being a woman was normal in what is, after all, called women's gymnastics. Hungary's Agnes Keleti was 35 when she and 21-year-old Larysa Latynina dueled for gold in the all-around at the 1956 Summer Games. Latynina, competing for the Soviet Union, was 29 when in 1964 she won the last of her 18 Olympic medals. Czechoslovakia's Vera Caslavska won Olympic gold in the all-around twice, the second time in 1968, when she was 26.

Then came teen-agers Olga and Nadia and Mary Lou -- and, recently, all those teen Chinese girls.

The sport has changed.

Or has it? Because clearly there's still a place for someone like Alicia Sacramone, who is already 22 -- and closing in, in December, on 23.

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