Photo Courtesy: www.bannination.com - USA Gymnast Shawn Johnson.
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, 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?
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.