pint-sized U.S. gymnastics queen, 4'8" Shawn Johnson, served notice with a
FOR AT LEAST a
moment last Saturday night, Shawn Johnson wasn't concerned about the context of
her achievements. Sure, the 15-year-old from West Des Moines had picked an
ideal time, a pre-Olympic year, to be crowned the new queen of U.S. gymnastics.
And, yes, her 3.45-point margin of victory in the all-around competition at the
U.S. nationals in San Jose was enormous, since just 2.20 points separated the
second- and fifth-place finishers. But even though just two weeks remained
before the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, Johnson wasn't thinking
in gymnastics terms. Asked where the overwhelming performance put her among the
sport's stars, she replied, "Cloud nine. I'll think about tomorrow when I
Johnson has been
a master of such complex landings since the day in 1992 when, as a
nine-month-old, she startled her mother, Teri, by appearing in the doorway of
the family's bathroom, where Teri was fixing her hair. "I was
horrified," says Teri, who was sure she had left Shawn in her crib.
"How did she climb out? How did she get down?" The dismount from crib
top to floor was a good four feet, roughly the height of a regulation balance
beam. Says Shawn, "I think I was born a monkey."
When Shawn was
six, Teri, an account clerk, and her husband, Doug, a self-employed carpenter,
enrolled Shawn in a gymnastics club. They had no idea that the owner and coach,
Liang Chow, had been a member of the Chinese national team for three years and
could spot a prodigy. "In a week she learned a back handspring," he
says. "I knew this one was special."
In 2004 Chow sent
a tape of Johnson's performances to Martha Karolyi, the U.S. women's national
team coordinator, whom he had never met. Chow attached a note saying of his
12-year-old prot�g�e, "This kid can help the U.S. team."
was brave or crazy," Karolyi says, "but his gymnast had some
Last summer in
St. Paul, Johnson won the U.S. junior all-around title with a final score of
124.10 points, .40 points higher than the score of the senior champ, Nastia
Liukin. Johnson also was the only U.S. female gymnast last year at any level to
do a double-twisting double-back somersault on the floor exercise. Furthermore,
her bars dismount is a rarely seen layout double double.
Though she still
lacks a signature move, the 4'8", 90-pound Johnson has no especially weak
event—she scored above 15 points on all eight of her routines last week and led
the all-around from the second rotation on. She also seems oblivious to
pressure. Last month she won five medals (four gold) at the Pan American Games
in Rio de Janeiro, where spectators not only jeered U.S. gymnasts mercilessly
but also timed their boos and hoots for release moves on bars and for backflips
on beam. "Try to scare her," Karolyi says. "You can try all day.
She's too smart."
On the upper left
of her leotard Johnson has her first name sequined in Chinese, a reminder that
her ultimate goal is next summer's Olympics in Beijing. But this gymnast is
dreaming of a routine that won't win her a medal. "I really want to see the
Great Wall," she says. "I can do flips on it."