Shawn Johnson

Wrestling? How about surfing?

The agenda is patently obvious Wednesday, when the International Olympic Committee's policy-making executive board meets in St. Petersburg, Russia, to determine the next steps for the sports program at the 2020 Summer Games. Does wrestling stand a chance to get back in? Or will it be irretrievably out for at least for four years? What about baseball and softball's combined bid -- does it deserve the one spot now open for 2020? Or will the other sports, such as squash, karate or climbing, be given an opportunity to make their case?

No matter the decision, the bigger picture has already been revealed. The IOC's process for figuring out what sports should be in the Games is fundamentally flawed and needs wholesale review.

The fix the IOC is in can be crystalized by assessing the outcome of the wrestling dilemma -- a crisis of the IOC's own making.

If wrestling, which the board voted out in February, gets a chance Wednesday to come back, and then -- in September at the all-members session in Buenos Aires -- actually gets voted back on, that's testament to an an appropriately aggressive response from FILA, the international wrestling federation, and power politics from, among others, Russia, where wrestling really matters, and President Vladimir Putin.

Russia is playing host to the Sochi 2014 Winter Games in just a few months. At Putin's direction, some $51 billion has already been spent -- that we know of -- getting ready for Sochi.

Putin is due in St. Petersburg to meet Thursday with Rogge, the day after the executive board vote.

If it's ultimately wrestling again on the program, and you can for sure make that argument in good faith, here's the problematic next question: what changes will the IOC's post-London Games review toward 2020 have actually effected?

Zero. Zip. Nada.

This raises a completely different set of issues and questions. Because, one might argue, it is counter-productive indeed for the IOC to do nothing, to seem stale, when it proclaims time and again that its mission is to reach out to the young people of the world.

To be blunt: the IOC's No. 1 priority in an ever-changing world is to remain relevant. There's a reason why sports such as jeu de paume, pelota basque and croquet, once features of the Summer Games program, aren't on it any longer. The program evolves with time and circumstance.

Yes, and understandably, wrestlers want to shine at the Games. But so do shortstops on baseball teams. And girls around the world who play softball.

And, for that matter, so do surfers, skateboarders, dancers, mixed martial artists and others.

The IOC has spent more than 10 years, essentially since the Mexico City session in 2002, trying to figure what to do about the Summer Games line-up. With this result: baseball and softball out, golf and rugby sevens in.

That is not considerable progress.

It is abundantly plain that more progress on this issue is not going to, or can not, take place until after the election of the new IOC president, at the Buenos Aires session, in September.

After that, though, this issue ought to be a key priority.

Mindful that the IOC -- at least for now -- caps participation in the Summer Games at 10,500 athletes and 28 sports, and also appreciating that a logjam like this is going to take both time, some direct conversation and some out-of-the-box thinking, here is a proposal to start the dialogue.

To begin, because of the 10,500 cap, somebody's got to go.

Say good-bye to soccer (504 athletes in London), shooting (390) and equestrian (200). This assumes wrestling is gone as well (344). Now you have cleared 1438 spaces.

Soccer for sure does not need the Games. Obviously, the men's component at the Olympics is not even the beautiful game's top priority since the best players don't play.

As for shooting -- people are going to shoot guns no matter what.

And for equestrian -- horse shows will survive without the Olympics, it's always a complication getting the horses to the Games and while the proponents of equestrian sport like to talk about how it fosters an amazing connection between man and beast that anyone can enjoy, doesn't it really cost a lot of money -- an awful lot of money -- to compete at an elite level?

Another way to approach the 10,500 cap is to ask why there is a 10,500 cap. And why the Games only run for 17 days. But that's a different philosophical issue entirely.

At any rate, once you make room for new sports, here are sports to consider, sports that young people actually like and that would not only make for hot tickets live but would crank up TV ratings, too:


Is there anyone who doesn't think surfing is cool? Who in the world doesn't think Hawaiian surf god Laird Hamilton is, like, the coolest guy on Planet Earth? Wouldn't he be an invaluable asset to the movement? Dude, there is an entire culture devoted to this sport.

The head of the International Surfing Assn. recognizes that the only way surfing makes its way into the Games is not out in the ocean. It's through man-made wave-park technology.

Purists would assuredly argue that would be betraying some of surfing's soulfulness. Who, though, says the soul of surfing requires it to be a sport for only those who live by the shore? That technology would spread the sport far and wide, allowing millions -- if not billions -- more access to it.

If you think beach volleyball is now the hot ticket at the Games -- imagine the scene at Olympic surfing.

Fernando Aguerre, 55, a surfer (of course) and president of the ISA, is a visionary, not just an entrepreneur and environmental activist but someone who for years now has understood the power of the Olympic movement to effect change.

Born and raised in Argentina -- where he founded the original Argentinean Surfing Assn. despite a military dictatorship ban on the sport at the time -- he now lives near San Diego, Calif.

Reef, the sandal and sportswear maker? That was his company. This summer, the surf industry's trade group SIMA -- which is more likely to honor the likes of a competitor like Kelly Slater -- is poised to give Aguerre its top prize, the Waterman of the Year Award.

The federation, incidentally, now counts 72 member federations. It includes world championships in a variety of categories. Further, ISA has launched a number of initiatives, including scholarship programs for young surfers in countries like Peru.

Aguerre said, looking at the sports in the Games program, "I believe restrictions on participation should exist. However, I think that in the best interest of the Olympic movement, the results should be applied to all sports -- those that are in the Games and those that are not in the Games. It should be a level playing field."

He added a moment later, "It's like I say about creating a menu for a party. It doesn't matter what food you serve in your house. You look at the best food, and then you create the menu. Then people are going to be happy."


The IOC has done solid work in bringing snowboarding to the Winter Games. U.S. icon Shaun White is now a two-time Winter Games gold medalist.

White is also a skateboarding stud.

And yet he can't compete in skateboarding at the Summer Games?

This makes no sense, especially when you see skateboarders doing awesome tricks at the X Games.

The explanation is both simple and yet super-complex -- it's sports politics.

Without getting too deep, the IOC demands national federations and an international federation. And everyone understands that skateboarding could mean big money.

The snowboarding analogy: snowboarders got in through the skiing federation. Now it's all good. But at the time, in the late 1990s, it was far from easy.

The challenge for skateboarding is figuring out how to get in -- separately, or under the wing of another federation. The cycling federation, for instance, has often been mentioned. But that has never seemed like the right fit.

So, as IOC president Jacques Rogge said in a recent interview in Around the Rings, this is the impasse.

It needs to be worked out.

Again, see those skateboarders at the X Games?


When: Dec. 11, 2000.

Where: the Palace Hotel, Lausanne, Switzerland.

What: a standard and Latin DanceSport demonstration.

Who was there: then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, the entire IOC executive board, the IOC program commission and others, among them me. I walked out thinking, no way.

More than a dozen years later, and all I can say is, I was flat-out wrong, and I am here now to say it's time to admit it.

One: it's ridiculous to say the IOC doesn't allow dancing in the Games. Look at ice dancing in the Winter Olympics.

Two: they're real athletes. Ask Apolo Ohno, the eight-time U.S. short-track speed skating medalist, about how physically taxing it is to dance on "Dancing with the Stars." Or Shawn Johnson, the U.S. gymnast who won gold on the balance beam in Beijing in 2008 and who, like Ohno, is a "Stars" winner.

Three: have you seen the ratings for "Dancing with the Stars"? Or the British version, "Strictly Come Dancing," which started the entire thing? Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is not just a franchise but a worldwide phenomenon. And not just on TV. We're talking crazy on social media.

Tug of war

Is there a kid alive who has not played tug of war?

This is a sport that, with a little rock-and-roll music, some cheerleaders and a little sand, could become the next breakout hit -- again, the next beach volleyball.

What do you need to make tug of war happen? A rope. Where is there not a rope and some imagination?

A little-known fact is that tug of war was included in the Games from 1900 to 1912, and again in  1920. Time to bring it back!

As David Wallechinsky writes in his authoritative The Complete Book of the Olympics, a first-round pull resulted in one of the biggest controversies of the 1908 London Games: after the Liverpool Police pulled the U.S. team over the line in seconds, the Americans protesting that the Liverpudlians had used illegal boots spiked with steel cleats. The British maintained they were wearing standard police boots; the protest was disallowed and the Americans withdrew. After the tournament, the captain of the gold medal-winning London City Police challenged the Americans to a pull in their stockinged feet; there is no record of such a contest ever taking place, Wallechinsky writes.

Meanwhile, talk about universality. Imagine three-on-three teams from, say, American Samoa and Estonia. Why not?

Why not mixed teams? Men and women competing against each other? Maybe five-on-five?

All that would require some major rules changes, acknowledged Cathal McKeever, head of the sport's international federation, who said it is actively working to get back onto the program, perhaps by 2024.

"It's not like Michael Phelps," he said. "We don't have superstar individuals."

Not yet.

Mixed martial arts

Eight years ago, when I was still a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, I wrote a front-page story  about an up-and-coming sport, mixed martial arts, that U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Republican stalwart from Arizona, had once decried as "human cockfighting."

Since then, the UFC has gone on to become an enormous success story.

Mixed martial arts is already huge, it's still growing, young people can't get enough of it, and the time has come for the IOC to start coming to terms with it -- indeed, to get on board, because if you go to an MMA gym, the values that are preached there are thoroughly in line with the Olympic values: respect, excellence, friendship.

One of the primary ethos of an MMA fight is that it's OK to tap-out to live to fight again -- this shows respect not just for your opponent but for the sport itself.

Every excuse the IOC could come up with is just that -- an excuse.

For instance, there are those who don't like the fact that MMA is a "submission sport." But so is judo.

To be clear, this is a long-term proposition. The IOC and the international federation -- yes, there already is one, and it is not based in the United States -- would have to figure out how the basics of how to run a tournament. Could the athletes, for instance, reasonably be expected to fight three or four times over 16 days?

Here's the thing, though: where there's a will, there's a way. And when the IOC wants to get things done, it always does.

Oh, and to take this back to the beginning of this column, and wrestling, because wrestling has been around since the beginning of the modern Olympics in 1896 -- you know what was a major feature of the ancient Games, in Olympia itself? A discipline called pankration.

Today we would call that "mixed martial arts."











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."

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."

An American archery thunderbolt

Maybe there's something in the water in central Iowa, something that produces teen-age Olympic sport sensations. Three years ago, it was Shawn Johnson. This was way before "Dancing with the Stars." This was when Shawn was hanging out at Chow's Gymnastics & Dance and going to Valley High in West Des Moines. Shawn went to Beijing in 2008, won four medals, one of them gold on the balance beam, came back home and -- she was a star.

Miranda Leek, identified long ago as one of the best up-and-coming archers in the United States, graduated last month from Dowling Catholic, also in West Des Moines. Graduation Day came two days after her 18th birthday. The weekend before, at a trials event in pouring rain in New Jersey, she'd had to show nerves of steel to make the three-member 2011 U.S. world championships recurve team -- beating out older, more experienced rivals.

Making the team was just the start. A few days ago, at a World Cup event in Antalya, Turkey, the U.S. team -- Miranda, Jennifer Nichols, Khatuna Lorig -- stormed through the tournament to take the first-ever U.S. recurve World Cup silver medal. In a final marked by driving rain (again), with lightning in the area, the Americans fell to South Korea, 207-190.

The score didn't matter. The loss didn't matter.

What mattered was the thunderbolt of second place.

There's not just hope in American archery circles. There's excitement.

Archery can be super-complicated. Here's the essence of it all:

A recurve bow bends away from the shooter at the tips when the bow is strung.

To say that the American women's recurve team has for years been an under-performer would be -- well, gracious. And yet -- there's undeniably talent.

Lorig, a native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, competed in her first Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, shooting for the Unified Team and winning a team bronze medal; she carried the flag for the U.S. team in the closing ceremonies in 2008, so honored after advancing all the way to the quarterfinals, finishing fifth, in the women's individual event.

Nichols is a two-time Olympian, 2004 and 2008, from Cheyenne, Wyo. She finished ninth in the women's individual event in Athens.

Talent, though, is not enough. You need depth. You need chemistry.

Lorig is now  37. She is married. She has an 18-year-old son -- that is, her son, Levan Onashvili, and Miranda Leek are the same age.

Nichols is 27. She is a dean's list student majoring in international studies at Texas A&M.

"I have amazing teammates," Lorig said. "It's kind of like we are meant to be together."

"When we're competing individually," Nichols said, "that's where our mental strength comes from -- the confidence in our ability, our training, our equipment. It all just comes together. If we can step to the line in confidence, we're going to come fully loaded and ready to shoot. When it comes to the team, we haven't felt this confident in years."

"They're really great," Miranda said. "We get along great together. Not just as archers. But as friends."

Mike Usherenko, Lorig's coach for 10 years, said she and Nichols have made it clear to Miranda that she -- Miranda -- absolutely belongs on the world stage and in  return Miranda has brought "something to this team" that "we didn't have for some time," a "new level that all three an perform equally and support each other."

The U.S. head coach, Kisik Lee, who moved to the States in 2006 after serving as Australia's coach during the 2000 and 2004 Games, a man of distinct purpose and vision, observed simply, "They believe in each other. They believe in their relationship and in the team and in USA Archery. They didn't have that previously."

The world championships beckon, in early July in Torino, Italy.

"She is not just a 17-, 18-year-old girl," Lee said of Miranda, adding that the federation's "culture had changed" and she, a product of junior development programs, is emblematic of that.

He said, "I had a dream to make the USA the best team. I know we needed a better culture. We needed a team."

Archery is so much a mental game. Here's why there's so much excitement in American archery circles: "It's going well," Miranda said. "It's really fun."

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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