Nastia Liukin

Thought leadership: making Mandela's words real

Thought leadership: making Mandela's words real

It was of course Nelson Mandela who told us all something so simple, so eloquent and so powerful.

“Sport,” he said, “has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to inspire to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair …”

Last weekend, a car-and-knife rampage on London Bridge left eight people dead and dozens injured. Afterward, political, governmental and faith leaders issued calls for solidarity and resolve amid this latest act of terrorism in western Europe.

Shannon Miller: happy, healthy, optimistic

It's 101 days to go Tuesday until the opening ceremony in London, and Shannon Miller is in Chicago, up early, on the telephone, happy, healthy, talking about gymnastics, about Nastia Liukin, about how records are made to be broken, about how the 2012 U.S. women's team looks really good. It's all good.

Of course it is. Any day you're cancer-free is, as Shannon Miller makes plain, a great day.

It was just a little bit over a year ago that Miller, America's most-decorated gymnast, was diagnosed with a form of ovarian cancer.

During an annual exam, doctors discovered a baseball-sized cyst,  a germ cell malignancy, on an ovary. The cyst and ovary were removed. Miller then opted for several weeks of preventative chemotherapy said to improve her cure rate to 99 percent.

Early detection -- as ever in many cancer cases -- is key, she said.

A few weeks ago, Miller turned 35; she was 33 when the tumor was discovered.  "With something like ovarian cancer, you think it's for older women," she said. "Cancer doesn't care how old you are. It doesn't care how many gold medals you have. It doesn't discriminate."

Shannon Miller has two gold medals, both from 1996 in Atlanta, the team gold and the individual balance beam. She has five more from 1992 in Barcelona, two silvers in the all-around and the beam and three bronze medals, the team and the individual bars and floor.

For those counting, she also has nine world championship medals.

Nastia Liukin won five Olympic medals in Beijing in 2008. That's of course the same number Miller won in Barcelona.

Liukin, the 2008 all-around champion, is now in training for London. It's unclear whether she can repeat as 2012 all-around champ. She didn't, for instance, even compete at the 2011 world championships; Jordyn Wieber, a 16-year-old from East Lansing, Mich., was the all-around winner, and the Americans surprisingly won team gold.

Then again -- Liukin, when she is in top form, can deliver an almost ethereal performance on the uneven bars. Gymnastics insiders know that the 2012 U.S. team is almost surely going to need a strong bars performer. Might it be Liukin?

"My feelings on Nastia -- I love her," Miller said.

"I see a beautiful, beautiful athlete. I see that classical style. Because I went through my own comeback," from Barcelona to Atlanta, "I see in her that wanting to learn new skills, to wanting to be with my gymnastics family again, to feel that adrenaline rush. I understand that competitive rush.

"If anyone is going to break my records, I would be glad to turn it over to Nastia. That's what the U.S. should be doing. I would be sad if my records stood for decades. Because that means no one would be coming along for decades and decades. It needs to happen."

Since 2000, the U.S. women have dominated world gymnastics, winning 60 world and Olympic medals -- no other nation has more than 35 -- and producing the last two Olympic champions.

But -- the Americans have not won team gold at the Games since 1996.

The American roster this year is so deep that picking five -- that's all you get -- from the roster of 20 on the national team will doubtlessly be an enormous challenge.

But it also, for gymnastics experts and casual fans alike, ought to produce intense interest.

That's what Miller was doing in Chicago -- promoting a meet there at the end of May, the Secret U.S. Classic, a let's-see-what-you've-got-in-your-routines in time for the June 7-10 Visa national championships in St. Louis, which are themselves a get-ready for the Olympic Trials June 28-July 1 in San Jose.

That's a lot of gymnastics to get through before London. At the same time, it's an enormous competitive advantage. Because the five who make it surely should be honed and ready.

Miller said, "I really feel like this year, we are obviously going to … put five incredibly talented, maybe the most incredibly talented, athletes we have ever put out there."

She said, "It's kind of theirs to lose at this point."

And then she added, speaking only about gymnastics but in a reference that bore the wisdom of someone who knows what really matters in life itself, "I think it comes down to: will they be healthy?"

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."

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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