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A Visit with Shawn Johnson, West Des Moines Gymnast

posted on May 28, 2007

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Shawn Johnson of West Des Moines is focused, enthusiastic, and just plain talented. But as we'll see, she's also glowing with potential and her visions of the 2008 Summer Olympics are way more than just pipe dreams.

Shawn: I think every child wants to go to the Olympics. It just makes you a better person to know that you've worked ten, twelve, fifteen years so hard at this, and to just give up on it would just not make sense.

Zhaung: Our goal is the Olympics. She's number two ranking in the whole world right now and number one in the nation.

Shawn: I never imagined that I'd be on TV or wearing the USA leotard, and here I am. And it makes me want to push even harder trying to get to the Olympics now.

Narrator: During the past twelve months, fifteen-year-old Shawn Johnson of West Des Moines has dominated the best junior gymnasts and has already won nineteen gold medals internationally. This spring she won the Tyson American Cup in her very first senior elite level competition. The event was broadcast by NBC Sports.

Shawn: I definitely get nervous. I've never gotten less nervous since the first day I started. I get out there and I've got butterflies and all that, but I think when I get nervous it helps me. It gets my adrenaline going.

Teri Johnson: It's just amazing to see her and to think that you had any part of it. She's been self-driven and self-motivated it seems like from day one, as far as just eager and can't get enough.

Narrator: Shawn began walking without ever taking time to crawl. At the age of three her parents enrolled her in dance in hopes of finding a release for her abundant energy. Soon after they discovered gymnastics was a better fit. At age 6 ½ Shawn joined Chow's Gymnastics, where she continues to train with the husband and wife team of Liang Chow and Liwen Zhaung.

Chow: We felt that she enjoyed every single minute in the gym from the start, and she's a very talented kid. She's strong and also she takes corrections really well.

Doug Johnson: There was times when we asked her if this was really what she wanted to pursue because, of course, we would have liked to have had her at home a lot more.

Teri Johnson: Well, because there's so many hours involved. I wanted her to always be doing it for herself. It's been a go from day one.

Shawn: I still try to have the other life of just a normal teenager. I love shopping with, like, my friends and my mom and my dad. I love spending time with my family. That's something that I don't get a lot, so I cherish it a lot.

Narrator: Shawn's schedule is demanding. In addition to 25 hours a week of gymnastics training, she is also a ninth-grade “A” honor roll student. She is a member of the U.S. National Team and every six weeks travels to the Olympic training camp near Houston, Texas.

Shawn: You're doing conditioning, stretching, and numbers of routines that people don't even dream about or think of. They call us the survivors of our sport just because it really -- it just -- it pushes you to your physical and mental limit.

Chow: A gymnast performing the very hard skills, that you don't really see how much foundation, how much work, we're building that foundation on a daily basis. Shawn, she has a lot of difficult skills.

Zhaung: In order to master a skill, it takes about a thousand tries. The very, very difficult skills, they cannot do too many times. Because there's so much pressure mentally and physically, they have to prepare well and try certain numbers. If they do too much, sometimes technically will go wrong.

Chow: Your body can handle so much hard poundings.

Shawn: I love the balance beam. I don't know why because it's really scary, but I think it's because it's so scary and so challenging. I love doing my series. It's the back handspring, back handspring, back layout. It's three skills in a row which hardly anybody does just because it's hard to control three skills when you're not stopping to reposition or anything.

Chow: Coaching for this level is not a job. For this level, coaching for us is a passion.

Narrator: Shawn's coaches, Chow and Li, have been instrumental in developing her potential. The couple met in the late 1980s when they were both gymnasts on the Chinese National Team. Natives of Beijing, the host city for the 2008 Olympics, their passion for gymnastics led them to Iowa and to Shawn. Their skill as her coaches may take them back home.

Zhaung: I think our relationship -- Shawn, Chow, and me - is a triangle, and we're like these three different points. And we have to stretch each other, correct each other, and make everything so perfect. Our team is very tight. We just work together from different angles.

Shawn: My coaches are like my second parents. I mean, they know everything that's the best for me, and they never try to push me in a direction that I don't want to go.

Chow: I see the kids are achieving their goals, achieving their dreams, that makes our life much happier.

Shawn: Gymnastics have made me a better person, I mean all around with school and home and appreciating every aspect of life. It makes you realize what you want and how hard you actually have to work for it. I experience things now, though, that a lot kids and a lot of people don't ever get to experience. So I like that a lot, but knowing that I have sacrificed so much for so long and knowing that there is only, like, 400 days left till the Olympics, after I do plan to have some more fun and just chill out for a while.

I've always wanted to do high school sports, but still I can never see dropping the whole sport of gymnastics completely. I'll be in gymnastics some way or another for the rest of my life. I do look at it that it will be over soon, but yet it's just the beginning.

Johnson Boyle: Be sure to keep your eyes on Shawn's road to Beijing. Her summer is going to be intense, with three major competitions coming up for her this July, August, and September.

Tags: gymnastics Iowa Olympics teens


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