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OLYMPICS

Gymnast Shawn Johnson is hopeful but realistic about her return

The 20-year-old who won four medals at 2008 Olympics attempts comeback after layoff and knee injury from ski accident, but she knows competition from big group of younger girls will be tough.

April 24, 2012|By Diane Pucin
  • U.S. gymnast Shawn Johnson hopes to be competing for gold at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
U.S. gymnast Shawn Johnson hopes to be competing for gold at the 2012 Summer… (Scott Harvey / Getty Images )

Since she won four medals at the 2008 Olympics, including a gold in the balance beam, Shawn Johnson has retired from her sport, written a book, won the mirror ball trophy on "Dancing With the Stars," torn up her knee while skiing and had reconstructive surgery.

Oh, yeah, and she's doing gymnastics again.

Johnson, 20, who came to the Beijing Games as defending world all-around champion and Olympic favorite, accepted her silver all-around medal, one rung below American teammate Nastia Liukin, with both a smile and tears.

Now Johnson is willing to accept failure of a more dramatic sort.

"At the end of the day, I don't know what to expect," Johnson said by telephone from her home training gym in West Des Moines, Iowa. "There are a lot of girls out there, a lot of younger girls and it's a lot harder. I have good days and bad days.

"My biggest goal, honestly, is to help the USA win team gold. It's not about me."

Johnson said that if her help is just showing her work ethic in practice gyms, that would be OK.

"I'm not a 16-year-old anymore," she said. "I'm not as capable of doing the hardest routine on the floor anymore, but I am more artistic. I hold my own and after that, I'm a puzzle piece. We'll see if I fit.

"Either I'll be accepted on the team or I will not be. If I'm standing in that line where I hear, 'Thanks for your effort,' it will still mean a lot and I go on and try something new."

Johnson's longtime coach Liang Chow said it would be "difficult" for Johnson to make her second Olympic team. Her recovery from the knee injury two years ago, he said, "did set her back." Chow also noted this year team's can have only five gymnasts instead of six for the first time. "And the U.S. has many good gymnasts," Chow said.

One of those is 16-year-old Gabrielle Douglas, who moved from Virginia to train with Chow and who was part of the 2011 U.S. world championship gold-medal winning team.

Johnson said it has been "an adjustment" to have her coach splitting his focus with another, younger, world-class gymnast. But now she appreciates the daily competition. "I know what I have to do," Johnson said.

Shannon Miller, who won seven Olympic medals, including two golds, in 1992 and 1996 understands how difficult it is for Johnson.

Miller was 15 when she participated in her first Olympics in Barcelona in 1992. She came back four years later, a grown-up 19-year-old with a different body and different mind to compete in Atlanta. She tried for an even bigger comeback that was ultimately unsuccessful in 2000 after she had left the sport for three years.

"I was trying to work with added weight," Miller said of the way she changed from 1992 to 1996, "but also with different emotions." And for the 2000 attempt, Miller said she discovered a new feeling that she hadn't associated with gymnastics: insecurity .

Martha Karolyi, the USA Gymnastics women's team coordinator, said confidence is a key for Johnson.

"The Shawn who was competing in Beijing, who won world championships the year before, that was a gymnast full of energy and enthusiasm and full of very good self-confidence, which is so important to do well in these competitions," Karolyi said.

"If we would get the same Shawn now it could be great for the team. But she has unfortunately had to deal with injuries from the ski accident, so we don't know."

Karolyi said what she appreciates about Johnson's return to the sport is her willingness to fail publicly as well as succeed, and the fact that Johnson can still enjoy the sport.

"To want to do it a second time," Karolyi said, "you really love the sport, so it is nice and a compliment to our system and our sport that Shawn still wants to do it.

"But who will be best prepared, who will be at the highest standard, it is those girls who will be chosen for the team."

Johnson said she wishes it were 500 days until the London Olympics instead of less than 100. "I have been taught this mentality of perfection," she said, "and it's a difficult thing to deal with that I'm no longer so perfect."

She said that after her skiing injury, there was only an immediate goal of getting healthy for herself. "Then I wanted to get fit and confident and then I wanted to get back to training camp. Now everything is back on track.

"And if it ends up I'm not part of the team, I'm OK with that. But I'm trying and I'm proud of that."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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