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Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Shawn Johnson resumes training

Associated Press

Shawn Johnson spent so much time at the Karolyi ranch before the Beijing Olympics it may as well have been her second home.

However, Johnson is surprisingly nervous as she packs for her first trip there in more than two years. Other gymnasts have moved in during her absence, making the Olympic gold medalist feel like an outsider.

"It's been so long and I'm completely out of the loop. I don't remember what it's like or if I'm up to par with everyone," said Johnson, who leaves Thursday for her first national team training camp since Beijing. "It'll probably be fine. I'm probably making way too big of deal about it. But it is [nerve-racking]. It's foreign territory for me right now."

Comebacks in gymnastics are daunting enough. The sport requires equal doses of physical strength and precision, and the only way to perfect Olympic-caliber routines is through hundreds and hundreds of hours of training. Take just a month or two off, and you may as well be starting from scratch.

A complete reconstruction of her left knee last February makes Johnson's challenge even greater.

"It's definitely not 100 percent," said Johnson, who tore her ACL, MCL and meniscus, as well as her hamstring, during a January ski vacation to celebrate her 18th birthday. "It gets really frustrating. I've broken down about it a few times because that's the only thing that's keeping me from getting to where I want to go. My biggest fear is that's what's going to keep me from competing and getting back to the Olympics."

It's as much a blessing as it is a curse because the knee injury prompted her return to the gym.

Johnson needed time away from gymnastics after winning the 2007 world title and four medals in Beijing -- a gold on balance beam and silvers in the all-around, team competition and floor exercise. She won "Dancing With the Stars," carried the Olympic torch before the Vancouver Games and traveled the country for appearances and commercial opportunities. She even got her own video game, "Shawn Johnson Gymnastics," which came out Tuesday for Wii users.

Johnson talked about a comeback, and even stopped in at the gym from time to time. But being a "normal" teenager was too much fun.

"I hadn't had the choice to do what I wanted or to wake up and say, 'You know what? I don't want to work out today," she said. "Going to Iowa Hawkeye football games, doing things like that, it's hard to give up."

When Johnson blew out her knee, her first thoughts were of gymnastics.

"That said something to me," she said. "If that meant so much, I had unfinished business there."

Johnson went straight from the doctor's office to the gym to talk to longtime coach Liang Chow and plot her comeback. With her physical activities limited for six months after her Feb. 16 surgery, she began running and doing conditioning work to get her body back in gymnastics shape.

As her knee healed, she resumed gymnastics workouts. Johnson isn't doing full routines yet, and estimates she's got about 50 percent of her skills back.

"We've made very good progress since she's been back in the gym," Chow said. "The major problem still we're dealing with is her knee situation. We cannot push it; it's not nearly 100 percent yet because of the injury. We just need to be very, very cautious on that."

Johnson trains four hours every afternoon Monday through Friday, with additional morning sessions on Tuesday and Thursday. She also trains twice on Saturday. It's more hours than in the lead-up to Beijing, but Chow said they need the extra time because they can't push as hard and risk a setback with Johnson's knee.

"It's milder," he said, "but it's stretched out a little more."

And Chow is adamant about protecting Johnson's knee. For every hour they work on floor exercise, for example, only 20 minutes is spent on the hard floor. She'll do the rest of her work on the tumble track, a soft, springy surface. If she's feeling pain or frustration, he'll have her swim laps, do the elliptical machine or sit in the sauna.

He's not above making threats, either, telling her that she'll be limited to a couple of events instead of the all-around.

"It's really mentally exhausting. Every day when I get to gym, whether I'm tired or not, I'm wanting to push myself and get my new skills, progress to the next level," Johnson said. "I want to move a lot faster than I am, and I think I don't notice how fast I'm actually moving. I've made so much progress in the last four to five months, but it's going to take awhile. I just need to have patience."

And Johnson is making progress, Chow said. Doctors have said it likely will be a year to 18 months after surgery before Johnson's knee feels like it used to.

"The improvement is very good, but also we have a lot of challenges ahead of us," Chow said. "In general, I'm thinking pretty positive because things are coming along together."

He felt the time was right to let national team coordinator Martha Karolyi have a look at her progress.

Johnson hopes to compete next year, and the original plan was to be ready for the January training camp at Karolyi's ranch. But Chow sent her a video of a recent training session, and Karolyi was impressed enough that she wants to see Johnson in person.

"It was a lot to handle, but Chow said the sooner the better to get back into it," Johnson said. "I just want to go and show Martha that I'm serious. This is something I'm really working toward."