Posted: Wednesday September 6, 2006 3:33PM; Updated: Thursday September 7, 2006 8:40AM
Shawn Johnson won the U.S. Junior National Title with a score that was better than even the senior champ.
Courtesy of Jason Harris
Shawn Johnson is only 14, but she's already being compared to the United States' first female all-around world champion gymnast, Kim Zmeskal.
A freshman at Valley Southwoods (West Des Moines, Iowa) High, Johnson's stock shot up in August when she was crowned Junior National Champion with a score (124.100) that also topped all senior contestants.
"Zmeskal is my role model," Johnson said. "She's my favorite gymnast. But I never tried to copy her."
Legendary coach Bella Karolyi, who directed Zmeskal to the world title in 1991, believes Johnson is practically a clone. "She's the same size [4-foot-6, 85 pounds] and has the same confidence," he said. "She even has her moves and expressions. In my 40 years of coaching, I never saw two individuals more alike."
Karolyi and his wife, Martha, who selects and coaches the USA team at the Women's National Team Training Center in Houston, began working with Johnson when she was 13. "I'll never forget that first training camp," Karolyi said. "There was a very, very lovely incident. She just spoke up: 'I've been here for over an hour and I haven't seen Bella yet!'
"Her personality jumped in my eye. Her physical abilities are very good, but her greatest trait is her personality. She has a lovely, confident smile on her face. She is disciplined and relates to everyone. I'd say she has all the chances in the future."
Zmeskal, who owns Texas Dreams Gymnastics in Coppell, Texas, along with her husband, Chris Burdette, said: "I feel very fortunate to have been around her for almost two years. She's a super-fierce competitor. There definitely is a connection, but I'm almost timid to say it because I'm complimenting myself.
"It's been really fun to watch her. It almost made me cry [when she won the Junior Nationals]. If she stays on the same path that she is on right now, she has a super chance [to make the 2008 Olympic team.]"
Kathy Kelly, vice president of programs for USA Gymnastics, calls the teenage phenom "amazing. She's got a brain [straight-A student] cooking back there. She has a plan. She's just like a little sponge -- a very unique individual. I see wonderful things for her in gymnastics and life."
En route to the national title, Johnson won gold medals in the balance beam, floor exercise and vault. She took silver in the bars. She followed up that brilliant performance by winning gold in the all-around competition and on the balance beam at the Junior Pan American Championships in Ottawa, Canada. She added silver in uneven bars and floor exercise -- all in just her fifth international competition.
Former Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton made the presentation to Johnson at the Junior Nationals. "It was really cool," Johnson said. "It was overwhelming to have her give me my gold medal."