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SHAWN JOHNSON should have been able to relax. She is, after all, the 16-year-old poster child for the world champion U.S. women's gymnastics team, the winner of three golds, including the all-around title, in Stuttgart, Germany, last September. With her big brown eyes and guileless smile, she's a hometown hero in Des Moines, where a local car dealer gave her the keys to a new Land Rover for her birthday in January. Not that Johnson needed the handout—she has endorsement contracts with Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Hy-Vee supermarkets, among others. An A student at Valley High in West Des Moines, the sophomore has her sights set on someday attending an Ivy League college. And if that isn't enough, the diminutive (4'9", 94 pounds) Johnson has already been cast in bronze, with the life-sized statue to be displayed in the Iowa Hall of Pride in Des Moines, opposite the black-and-white photos of Mamie Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover and Andy Williams. All this comes before the Beijing Olympics, at which Johnson hopes to become the third American woman, after Mary Lou Retton and Carly Patterson, to win an Olympic all-around gold. The world, it would seem, is the young lady's oyster.
But Johnson didn't see it that way on this February night. With Beijing approaching and 2007 behind her, that old devil Doubt had wheedled its way into her psyche. She was at the well-known "ranch"—Bela and Martha Karolyi's national-team training center 90 minutes north of Houston—along with dozens of other Olympic hopefuls who are brought there monthly to show off routines and sharpen their skills under the critical eye of Martha, the team coordinator. No one is guaranteed a ticket to Beijing, not even a world champion.
So Johnson couldn't sleep. In 2007 she'd won every competition she had entered: the American Cup, the American Classic, the Pan Am Games, the national and the world championships. But now it was a new year. At 12:30 a.m. she sat up in her bed, grabbed her cellphone and typed out a poem. This is how she relieves stress: with creative spurts of writing, drawing or painting. "There are no guidelines to writing," she says. "It lets me be free and do whatever I want. I let it all out."
The activity is her escape from gymnastics, with its demands of precision and the pursuit of perfection, its exhaustively rehearsed and regimented routines. That night Johnson cranked out 33 lines of rhyming couplets in 10 minutes, spilling her doubts onto the tiny screen. The poem dealt with the fear of losing and the occasional impulse to give up the sport.
When behind the scenes you crumbled and prayed
She texted the poem to her mother, Teri, an accounting clerk for the West Des Moines school system, before going to sleep. Teri is frequently surprised and moved by what Shawn writes. "I don't know where her artistic side comes from," Teri says. "She's got a good little soul."
You remember the times when you thought to give up
"Every day before practice, I reread it," Shawn says. "Writing that poem released a lot of the pressure. World champion is such a huge title to live up to."
TERI AND Doug Johnson, an independent contractor specializing in interior trim work, didn't push Shawn up the gymnastics ladder. Quite the opposite. Every time Shawn's coach, Liang Chow, told Teri he wanted to advance Shawn a level, Teri asked him to reconsider. "Chow has told me I'm the only mom who asked him to hold her daughter back," Teri says. "I thought she'd be better off competing against kids her own age."
Chow knew better. He grew up in Beijing, which is why Teri believes destiny has been at work. "I have a gut feeling they were supposed to meet and do this thing," she says. "It's just been too easy. We haven't done anything to make this happen."