Brandy Johnson's Leotard was a study in chutzpah. The aqua-and-black number, trimmed with silver sequins (there were also sparkles on her shiny blonde ponytail), was clearly a star's ensemble. One could almost hear the judges at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships saying with a sniff, "If you wear a costume like that, you had better back it up with a real performance."
She did just that, right from her first event last Saturday night at the Met Center in Minneapolis. Johnson writhed and leaped through her floor exercise to Donna Summer's jazzy Hot Stuff, completing three difficult tumbling passes, including a round off, whip whip, flip flop and double-back that looked pretty much like it sounds. Difficult. The judges gave her a score of 9.7 for the exercise, a full .2 better than anyone else's mark. In the end, Johnson took the all-around title going away, winning by almost two points. "Once she got rolling there was nothing that could stop her," said her coach, Kevin Brown. For good measure, on Sunday she won three of the four individual events.
Johnson, 16, who has been the best gymnast in the U.S. for almost a year, now has the titles to prove it. Unfortunately, being the country's top gymnast the year after the Olympics is a little like putting on a terrific fireworks display on the fifth of July.
Still, it was a dominant performance for Johnson and a thrill for her mother, Kathy, who watched from the stands at the Met. Brandy's father, Jerry, a building contractor, had stayed home in Altamonte Springs, Fla. "He gets too nervous watching her compete live," Kathy explained.
The question is: How many nerve-racking meets lie ahead for good old dad? Johnson plans to stay in the sport for at least three more years, but it won't be easy.
"Historically, the girls who are in this meet the year after the Games are not on our next Olympic team," says Mike Jacki, executive director or the U.S. Gymnastics Federation (USGF). "The sport is directed toward smaller, younger girls, and it's hard for a quote-unquote older woman to compete. But I'll be excited and pleased if that doesn't happen this time."
Johnson competed in the 1988 Olympics, but she was a virtual unknown. Although she came in 10th in the all-around—the highest finish for a U.S. gymnast, man or woman—in Seoul she was overshadowed by teammate Phoebe Mills, then 15, who won a bronze in the balance beam. But Johnson started this year by winning the all-around title at three international competitions. defeating top Eastern bloc performers at each meet.
"Brandy is intelligent, prompt in action and backed with a totally unusual raw power, an explosiveness that very much reminds me of Mary Lou [Retton]," says Bela Karolyi, who coached Johnson during the '88 Olympics and was Retton's coach for the '84 Games. "And she has the same body type—short, stocky, but excellent quality of muscle."
The five-year search for a new Mary Lou shows just how tough it is to hang on in this game. The last pixie touted as the successor to Retton, the 1984 gold medalist, was Kristie Phillips. But the rubber-jointed Phillips, who is just a year older than Johnson, was done in by the growth spurts and weight gains of puberty and failed to make the '88 Olympic team. Next in line was Mills, but she quit the sport last month, saying she was burned out.
Meanwhile, Johnson is thriving. One thing that should make her journey toward Barcelona easier is a new USGF program. Team '92, which gives money to the top-ranked athletes in the sport. Johnson's win last week assured her of at least $16,000 over the next year. All in all, the USGF plans to dole out more than a million dollars in the next four years in hopes of encouraging the country's best gymnasts to stay in training longer.