BEIJING – Shawn Johnson had spent a week smiling her way through the gymnastics hall. No close defeat, no age controversy, no puzzled judges score could stop her. Where human nature said her face should relay some of her internal emotions – disappointment, frustration – she just kept smiling.
Tuesday she beamed after beam.
At the end she unleashed a smile as big as Beijing itself, a glorious conclusion to a competition that never got her down and only taught her more about herself as she came to appreciate the journey as much as the destination.
“I kept saying, ‘finally’ a lot,” Johnson laughed. “I made it. I finally won a gold medal.
I can’t stop smiling. I’m so excited.”
The 4-foot-9 powerhouse from Iowa had won over the fans here with her strong performance and profound grace. You can’t call an Olympics a disappointment when you win three silvers. Johnson came here for gold, however. She was the favorite, the best in the world. And she kept losing by the slimmest and most frustrating of ways.
There was an age controversy and a teammate’s foibles that overshadowed the team competition. She lost to Liukin, who she routinely defeated in the States, in the all-around. She had the floor gold wrapped up only to lose on the very last performance.
Throughout, the belief was that Johnson wasn’t receiving her customary high marks because the Olympic judges preferred taller, lankier, more graceful gymnasts to her stocky power. It is the unfair twist of gymnastics. It isn’t just how many flips you can do, it’s how you look doing them.
Johnson couldn’t get taller or leaner, she could only get tougher.
“The first time it did hurt a little,” she said. “But I go by, everything happens for a reason and for some reason the judges were giving me scores I’m not used to. But they had a reason.
“It did upset me a little, but I thought about it and I decided, I was at the Olympic Games, I was having the time of my life and I’m winning medals.”
What she decided was she wouldn’t pout. What did she have to complain about anyway? The truth was she hadn’t been perfect. She could be better.
Johnson is unique in high-level gymnastics because of the way she got here. She attends her local public school, Valley High in West Des Moines, while many competitors are home-schooled or part of a government athletic program.
She trains just four hours a day, about half as much as others. She is about as normal as it gets, as typical an American teen as a world-class athlete can be. This is no gymnastics robot.
In the end, that regular world perspective paid off.
She kept looking at her silvers and appreciating what they meant. She began drawing a greater value in coming close than actually finishing it off. The lesson was more valuable than the medal.
“When you do get (silver) you feel different emotions, but I looked back and appreciated that I had a medal,” she said. “If it were gold, it might feel differently. I don’t know how to explain it. I definitely came to appreciate it. I wouldn’t trade my silver medals for anything in the world. Not even gold.”
None of which means she didn’t want gold. She was so focused on winning the beam she did seven practice routines, an abnormally high number, despite being physically exhausted. On each one she kept making mistakes.
“The more mistakes you make in practice, the more you worry.”
She sat down and spent a minute in quiet contemplation. She decided to forget about the gold, the silver, the anything. She wanted to go out and deliver on the final performance of her Olympics. No, this hadn’t gone how she expected. No, she wouldn’t let that influence her.
“I wanted to do my best routine. I didn’t want to leave the Olympics thinking I could do better.”
If the judges liked it, they liked it.
“The eighth time was the charm,” she smiled.
She received huge hugs from her coaches. “I’m totally, fantastically happy,” said Martha Karolyi. “She needed that.” She was cheered on by Liukin. “Now we both are Olympic champions.” Competitors around the globe came over to congratulate her. The mostly Chinese crowd roared like one of their own had prevailed.
Johnson’s smile had won everyone over. And now it was bigger and brighter than ever, golden indeed.