Shawn Johnson training for 2012
Shawn Johnson was one of the best gymnasts in the world in 2008: She won four medals at the Olympics, including the all-around silver and balance beam gold. And she had plenty of post-Beijing perks to keep her busy -- partnerships and sponsorships with big-name brands like Nike, McDonald's, Kraft, Coca-Cola and more, a winning season on "Dancing with the Stars" and even an official Shawn Johnson Day in Iowa. But last May, Johnson headed back to the gym, aiming to make the Olympic squad again in London. She talked to espnW about her training, her "new" body, and why the Olympic dream is so addictive.
espnW: What made you decide to return to gymnastics?
Shawn Johnson: I realized one day that I really, really missed it. I missed being considered an athlete and having that competitive drive, and missed having something to work for every day. I'd taken two and a half years away from the sport and was out of shape. I wanted to get back to where I was in 2008. I wanted to feel the pride that comes from competing for your country, and I wanted to hopefully go back to the Olympics and experience that whole Olympic feeling again.
espnW: Did you ever think you'd come back for 2012?
SJ: Never! I told myself after 2008 that I was done for good. But they say you can't keep a gymnast away from her sport.
espnW: How is it different this time around from 2008?
SJ: It's 100 percent different. I'm a different person. Last time I was 16 years old, and I was just doing it as an after-school activity. This time around I'm older, more mature, and I know what goes into it. I own it now. I'm my own coach, with [coach Liang] Chow on the side of course, but I'm doing everything for me. It's not just for fun this time.
espnW: What are your goals?
SJ: I haven't really set any goals yet, beyond making the Olympic team.
espnW: What do you think is the key to making the team?
SJ: I need to work really hard. It's going to be about pacing myself and not pushing too hard and staying focused for the next year. My first competition is U.S. nationals in a couple of months [Aug. 17-20 in St. Paul, Minn.], and I feel like I'm in a pretty good spot. If I continue to keep consistent in the gym, I think I'll have a pretty good meet.
espnW: How do you think you best fit into the U.S. team?
SJ: I've tried to realistically look at the entire team and see where I would fit in. I'm definitely trying for the all-around -- that would be ideal -- but there are a lot of girls coming up that are really strong, and I feel like I can contribute as one of the veterans this time around. I'm working really hard on beam and floor -- I think those are my strongest events right now. I hold the [Olympic] title on beam, so I would love to defend it. That's a big, big goal.
espnW: Did you watch worlds last year when Russia edged out the U.S. team? Do you think the U.S. can beat them this year at worlds and next year at the Olympics?
SJ: Yes, I watched. I'm kind of biased, but, honestly, some of these young girls that are coming up for the USA team are unbelievable. I remember going back to [training] camp for the first time and seeing them warm up with my hardest skills from Beijing. It's amazing how hard we're working, and I think if we continue to do that and work together, we'll be untouchable ... at least I hope so.
espnW: What did you think of 2010 world all-around champ Aliya Mustafina?
SJ: She is an amazing gymnast. I remember watching her at worlds, and she's got that perfect balance of power and grace. She is such a poised gymnast. I heard she recently had an ACL surgery, which touched me pretty closely since I had that, so I only hope that she can come back pretty fast and get back into competition with us.
espnW: What is your typical day like now? Are you back to full training?
SJ: I'm doing four hours of gymnastics training a day, six days a week and then an extra two to three hours in a fitness center as well. So, I'm working really hard to get my fitness level back and my gymnastics skills back. Outside of gymnastics, I do a lot of elliptical, running, Pilates and yoga. And I do relaxing stuff, like sitting in the sauna, getting massages and acupuncture -- the fun stuff!
espnW: Do you feel like you're still trying to build up your strength and flexibility to where it was in 2008?
SJ: Yes, I'm still trying to build it back. I'm a completely different body type. I've grown up; I'm not a little girl. So getting back into shape is definitely different. But I'm also trying to be a different body this time. I don't want to be all power and muscle. I'm trying to get some of that grace and artistry in there. That's something you can never get enough of, and I'll always be working on.
espnW: As you mentioned, you injured your knee skiing a little more than a year ago. Is it all healed now? How is the rest of your body feeling?
SJ: It's almost there. I've come to the conclusion that it's always going to hurt a little because of the pounding on it. Now I can really tumble on it, and my body is doing well besides that. I'm pretty lucky.
espnW: Have you changed any of the skills you do because of your knee?
SJ: There were a couple of skills that we decided would be best to completely throw away, just because of extreme twisting, the landing or the takeoff. Finding the confidence to really trust your surgery leg is hard. So there are a few skills that I was really hesitant on, and we decided to try something else.The main one we took out was my double-twisting double-back on floor. It was sort of a signature skill for me, so I was a little bummed, but as soon as you take off from that skill you have to twist, so it was scary for me with a knee injury. But we found a new one that works even better and came pretty easily, so hopefully it will turn out well.
espnW: What skill is that?
SJ: It's a surprise right now.
espnW: Do you have a quote that keeps you going on tough days?
SJ: Yes, the motto I've been living by is that it will all be worth it in the end. I've gone through times of frustration because of my knee, or because I'm older now and can't push myself as much, and on the hard days, I tell myself that it will all be worth it. Nothing can replace the pride you feel from getting on the podium at the Olympics.