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Thursday, April 5, 2012
An inside look at training camp

By Shawn Johnson

Martha Karolyi
Camp objective No. 1 for Shawn Johnson and her U.S. teammates: impressing national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.

Shawn Johnson is blogging for espnW throughout her training for the Olympics in London this summer.

Say "camp" to an ordinary kid and she'll probably tell you about bonfires and sing-alongs and arts and crafts. Say it to an elite gymnast, and she'll tell you camp is every four weeks outside New Waverly, Texas, at "the ranch" -- the national team training center.

The ranch is a lot different than it sounds. Yes, there are animals (camels, peacocks and lots of deer!), but it's also fully equipped with multiple gyms, a row of cabins for gymnasts, a separate row for their coaches and dining facilities. It's an honor to be asked to attend the national team camps, but spending a few days there is also really hard work, especially for a slightly older body like mine. I'm used to it, though -- after all, I've been going to camp since I was 12 years old, and I'm now 20.

US Gymnastics
Where the magic happens: There are multiple gyms at the Karolyi ranch.

When we're there, we wake up around 6:45 a.m. and head straight for breakfast. Most of the girls grab eggs and coffee before we go back to our cabins and get ready to hit the gym. National team coordinator Martha Karolyi has an unwritten rule: If you're not 30 minutes early to practice, you're late. So although practice starts at 8:30, we all get there at 8. We get heat packs, get taped and do whatever we need to get ready, then sit in a loose circle on the floor and wait. At 8:30 on the dot, Martha walks out of the office. It's a signal -- we stand up, line up and address her. She gives our assignments for the day, and we start practice.

My last camp, three weeks ago, was just a check-in for me. I'm not competition-ready yet, but it was good to be in the gym, working alongside all of the other girls. I'm impressed by them all, but I try not to watch too much because it makes me nervous. I don't want to compare myself to them yet; because of my knee injury and rehab, I'm not where they are right now.

The morning practice ends around noon, then we do physical therapy if we need it. Some gymnasts need ice, while others get massages. Then it's straight to lunch, which is usually some sort of chicken dish, or occasionally salmon, with salad and bread and more fruit. People often ask if we're on a strict diet. It is super-healthy -- there's definitely no dessert -- but we're fed good food and we're taken care of.

We go back to our cabins after lunch, and this is our time to either nap or socialize. When I was younger, I would socialize, but these days I need the nap! I tend to get more social toward the end of the camps, when I know I won't need the energy later. Electronics are a lifesaver at the ranch -- girls download movies, seasons of TV shows and music to keep themselves occupied. At the last camp, I watched the entire first season of "Hart of Dixie" with two of my 2008 Olympic teammates, Bridget Sloan and Alicia Sacramone. We were obsessed (and I'll admit, we actually watched them all twice).

We're back in the gym by 4 p.m. for more of the same. Then dinner, some socializing and finally bed around 9 p.m. We repeat the routine every day, and yes, it is sometimes intense. We want to push each other to be better competitors, and it's true we're all training for the same five Olympic team spots. That could be weird if you let it be, but at the end of the day we're all going to represent USA the best that we can. So we're teammates and friends, and we're always pushing each other to be better.

I first attended camp in 2004. It was big time -- we worked out with Olympians such as Carly Patterson and Courtney Kupets, and I was in awe of them. I didn't think I belonged but still had a blast and evidently made the right impression. Camp is more fun when you're younger; the younger girls get to see all their friends, and the last night is often like a slumber party in which everyone stays up all night and watches movies. But for the older girls, who have been coming to camp for six or seven years, "the party scene" part of it that you feel when you're 12 is mostly gone.

These days, I often room with Alicia. We're older than many of the campers, and we share some of the same struggles and feelings. We both know that for us, it's different this time around. Our bodies can no longer do the same number of repetitions they once could. We see these young girls running around, and they're throwing 10 routines a day and doing 20 of each skill. But when we go up, we do five. It's just about being smarter; we don't have the same energy level, so we compensate by making sure that what we do really counts. We spend more time conditioning than throwing routines and take more care to make sure our bodies can handle what we're doing.

But there are virtues to being older, too. We have the experience behind us, and Martha knows what we're capable of. When you're young, you have to build your reputation. You have to build the confidence that Martha has in you. It's kind of a balancing act -- it comes down to proving yourself under pressure, during practice competitions at camp and in real competition. If you're consistent in that, you don't need to prove yourself as much.

But even then, you still need to go to camp.

Get more on Shawn's comeback in her last blog entry.