My coach, Liang Chow, had one rule while I was training for the 2008 Olympics: no skiing. I could do anything I wanted outside the gym, he said, except ski. Naturally, when the Olympics were over and I was able to take a break from high-level gymnastics, I told my parents I wanted to learn to ski.
We celebrated my 18th birthday, in January 2010, with a skiing trip to Colorado. On the final run of our last day, our group stood at the top of the mountain and looked at two different paths: a difficult black diamond trail or an intermediate blue run. My friends decided to ski the black diamond, but I was tired and lacked confidence to make it down the more difficult hill. I chose the intermediate run. Halfway down, I hit a patch of ice and I fell. It wasn't a bad fall, but the binding holding my left foot to the ski didn't unfasten. My ski caught in the snow with my left leg still attached while I rolled over my knee.
I was falling down the mountain. It was a "yard sale" with everything flying everywhere, so I didn't realize right away I had hurt myself. When I got up, though, my knee hurt a lot and I skied down the rest of the way on the other leg. I didn't know it yet, but the fall had torn my ACL, MCL and meniscus. After 13 years of hard landings in gymnastics, one ski run had delivered the biggest injury of my career. No wonder Chow hadn't wanted me on the slopes before Beijing!
In some ways the ACL tear was a blessing. I had hesitated to return to elite gymnastics after the 2008 Olympics. I told myself I had already accomplished so much, and the road was just going to get harder if I continued. It might have been easier to retire, to say my knee couldn't handle it and let that be that. At the same time, the prospect of not being able to compete in gymnastics anymore was heartbreaking. Eventually I realized beneath the sadness was something else: a determination to return to the highest level of gymnastics and compete well. A determination to try to make a second Olympic team.
I had surgery to repair the ACL in February 2010 and was back in the gym by June, but rushed things too quickly and ended up re-tearing my MCL in September. A second surgery repaired the damage but kept me out of gymnastics until February 2011. Five months later, in July, I competed at a national qualifier called the CoverGirl Classic, my first meet in almost three years.
I was able to do Classics, the U.S. national championships and the Pan American Games and feel like I improved with each meet, but I was still struggling with a lot of residual pain from the two surgeries. I had gotten to a point where I was able to complete three events just fine, but I still wasn't as strong as I wanted to be, and I still wasn't competing floor exercise.
I had a constant fear, a constant little doubt in my mind: "OK, I'm getting ready to do my standing back full on beam and I might re-tear my ACL." It's a horrible feeling. To have any doubt in your body is the biggest weakness an athlete can have. There are times when I physically can't get myself to go for a skill because I'm thinking, "My knee hurts really bad." It makes you question: Is something wrong? Is the injury going to happen again?
The truth is, rehabbing my knee had been put on the back burner. I didn't make it a priority, and as a result my knee didn't heal to the extent it should have. I had wanted to act like a machine and push through it. But it wasn't possible.
I knew I wasn't going to get where I needed to be just by doing the everyday usual routine in my gym. So, a month ago I moved to Dallas to do a six-week program at the Michael Johnson Performance Center in McKinney, Texas. Here, I'm focusing solely on getting my body -- specifically my knee -- where it needs to be in order to be ready for the U.S. national championships and Olympic trials in June.
I see a physical therapist daily for about two to three hours. We do a lot of strength training and biometrics work with high-tech tools like the Nike SPARQ Sensory Performance Lab, Dartfish digital movement analysis and Myotest. I do a lot of jumping and landing and things that really cater to my sport. In the evenings I head to a local gymnastics club for a few hours of skill work, just to keep up and make sure I don't forget everything I know!
I'm pleased to say my knee feels a lot better. It's still not back to normal, and I don't know if it ever will be, but I'm learning to deal with it instead of expecting it to be like it was before. In two weeks I'll return to Chow's gym in Des Moines and from there will press on with full gymnastics training.
I know how much more I need to do to be where I want. I'm trying to stay as calm as possible and focus one day at a time, but when reality sets in, I feel everything: anxiety, excitement, nerves, pressure and joy. I have a lot of expectations and a lot of goals I want to fulfill, but the biggest dream is still to make the Olympic team for London.
Shawn Johnson will be blogging for espnW throughout her training for the Olympics in London this summer. Check back in March for more on her journey.