The world’s top all-around female gymnast predicts that the USA will sweep the medals in her sport at the 2008 Olympic Games.
“Some of my toughest competition will come from my own team,” 16-year-old Shawn Johnson told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira Tuesday. “I think it will be 1-2-3, red, white and blue on the podium.”
Just don’t ask her in which order.
Johnson knows a glaring spotlight awaits her in Beijing. Many anticipate these games will give birth to America’s new Olympic sweetheart.
But the 4-foot-8 blonde is still hitting the floor running.
“Knowing that people are working hard to beat me — [it] makes me want to work so hard to become unreachable and untouchable,” Johnson said. “It feels great to hold it, and I don’t want to let it go.”
Since gaining eligibility for senior-level gymnastics last year, Johnson, a sophomore at Valley Southwoods High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, has won every event she has competed in but one. She started early — at age 3, to be exact. She recalled her time in a “super bunny” class and the first time she got on a trampoline.
“I was just in heaven,” Johnson told Vieira. “I had the best time ever, and it made me want to go back.”
Johnson’s first coach once told her she didn’t have much talent for gymnastics. Undaunted, she enrolled in Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance when she was 6. Liang Chow, owner and operator of the facility and a Chinese gymnastics star in the late 1980s, became her new coach.
“We found Chow, my coach now, and he said the complete opposite,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘This girl has it.’
“How he knew it and how he felt that, I don’t understand. But he’s gotten me to where I am today, and I couldn’t have gotten here without him.”
With a tireless work ethic that included consistent practices after classes, Johnson progressed quickly, qualifying to Junior International Elite status on her first attempt and finishing third in the 2005 U.S. Classic juniors championships. By 2006, she was the U.S. Junior National All-Around Champion — with a score higher than any of the senior elite competitors that year.
With equal skills in the vault, balance beam, uneven bars and floor, Johnson has finished first in all-around at the U.S. Championship and Pan-American Championships in her two years as a senior.
“My titles that I have so far, I try not to think about it too much,” she told Vieira. “I go into every competition as if it’s my very first one. I go out there and I have fun.”
To relieve the stress of rising to her own self-expectations, Johnson exerts herself in a less physical realm: She writes poetry.
“It’s just a way for me to express my feelings and kind of share with people things I’ve gone through,” she told Vieira.
One of her poems reads: “The sky is the limit and with the moon as its guide … as no one could predict how high one could travel with the hard work put in … to become a champion.”
To Johnson, the message is simple — the sky really is the limit. “You can do anything and go anywhere if you put your heart into it,” she said. “You always ask yourself, ‘Am I doing enough? Am I putting enough hours in? Am I doing the right thing? Is it worth it?’
“Honestly, I’ve never looked back. I’ve never tried to question it. When you’re standing on that podium at the end of a meet, you have no doubt in your mind — this is what you work for.”