Johnson only sees the silver lining

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

BEIJING – Shawn Johnson came here to win four gold medals, a half-pint, half-Phelps.

These were going to be her Olympics, too, the West Des Moines, Iowa, powerhouse whipping her 4-foot-9 frame all over China, gymnastics' answer to Michael's domination across the street in the pool.

Three events in and Johnson has three silvers.

So close, so far.

The latest near-miss came Sunday on the floor exercise final where Johnson went first, held onto a lead for the entire competition and survived all sorts of dangerous challengers only to lose to Romania’s Sandra Izbasa on the last possible leap, 15.65 to 15.5.

"I had a great time out there," Johnson offered.

This is why Johnson was poised to become America's sweetheart, why all the corporations had banked on her, why USA Gymnastics was so proud to put her at the forefront of its promotions.

As good a gymnast as she is, she's something else as a 16-year-old kid. Almost unnervingly nice, she is relentlessly positive, a one-person cheering session of smiles and dimples and big brown eyes.

Johnson must get down or frustrated. She just isn't showing any of it here.

For a gymnast, you can't come much closer to victory than Johnson has in Beijing. She has performed extremely well, only to watch someone else send her to silver – whether it's a teammate making mistakes or an opponent having the performance of her life.

The U.S.'s bid for team gold fell apart because of errors that mostly weren't Johnson's. She lost all-around gold when teammate Nastia Liukin, whom she had routinely defeated the last couple of years, performed almost flawlessly.

Now she has just one shot left here.

"I really want gold on the beam," Johnson said of Tuesday's final event.

This is about as much angst as you'll get from her, even if no one would blame her for showing a little disappointment and frustration.

"Of course, when you go to the Olympic Games you try to win gold," she said. "But I'm happy to be here and win any medal.

“I'm a three-time Olympic medalist. It's the biggest thrill."

No one thinks Johnson should apologize for all those silvers. No one thinks that she is really, truly satisfied, though. Not when gold keeps slipping away.

This was a pressure cooker of a night for Johnson. She drew the worst spot in the rotation – first. Scores at any meet, and especially the Olympics, tend to climb as more gymnasts compete. Going first is a disadvantage.

Johnson, not surprisingly, tried to look at the positive. By going first, she figured she would be warmed up when it was time to go and she could just get the routine out of the way.

She went out and did just that, a big performance that gave her a good score and nothing else to do. She sat down in her purple outfit, feet barely touching the floor, and watched and watched and watched as competitor after competitor tried to steal her gold.

"Honestly, sitting there was the most nerve-wracking thing I've ever experienced," she said.

Johnson never stopped smiling and politely clapping for her opponents. A lesser person would succumb to human nature and secretly wish for slips and falls. Johnson is apparently not a lesser person.

"It's not an act," she said. "I know everything I went through to get here, and knowing what it takes, I want (opponents) to do their best also because they've given up their life to the sport. Even if I was in last place today and everyone else did their best, I’d be happy."

If anything, dealing with watching opponents try to take your medal wasn't even Johnson's most difficult challenge here.

She's rooming with Liukin in the Olympic Village, so the woman who edged her out for all-around gold – a gold she had trained her entire life for -- was impossible to get away from. She couldn't have a pillow to cry into, a place to feel frustrated in or a neutral party to vent with.

Everyone would like to think they could fend off jealousy, but to do it?

"It was a little hard for her and I could see it in her eyes," said Liukin, who won bronze in the floor. "I gave her a little space because I know what it's like."

In 2005, Liukin lost the world championships to teammate Chellsie Memmel by one hundredth of a point. Then she had to hang around with her.

"It's really hard, especially when a (roommate) does it," Liukin said. "I just gave Shawn some space, and the (next morning) we were right back to normal."

Liukin is competing against Johnson in the beam, but if for some reason she can't win it, she'd love to see it go to Johnson. Her father and coach, Valeri Liukin, feels Johnson's pain.

"This is very frustrating to see this," he said.

All over USA Gymnastics, people just want to see their little leader finish this out strong.

Johnson is everything you want from an Olympic athlete, a great American role model. She has a real life, and she goes to a real public school. She isn't one of these robots who trains eight hours a day in the gym.

If anything, she's too good to be true, too sweet to believe.

"I've had the time of my life out there," she kept saying, refusing to let pre-Olympic hype define her experience.

She came to win gold, and while that hasn't changed, she's learned to savor silver, too.