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Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Shawn Johnson posts mixed performance

By Blythe Lawrence

Shawn Johnson is in limbo.

Somewhere in the past is the gymnast she was: the bubbly young powerhouse with the million-dollar smile who won four medals at the Beijing Olympics. Somewhere ahead is the gymnast she hopes to be by next summer: an all-arounder like she was in 2008, with enough difficulty to help the U.S. team in any event and high enough scores to sneak onto the five-member Olympic squad.

Where she's at right now is a bit harder to define. Johnson, who took a year off from training after the 2008 Olympics to enjoy the fruits of fame (most notably, she won "Dancing with the Stars" in 2009), returned to international competition last week for the first time since the Olympics at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Though the U.S. team won gold and Johnson earned a silver on uneven bars, hers was a mixed performance.

The good included an upgraded bar routine and a stronger double-twisting Yurchenko vault, probably the best she has done it since returning to competition this past July.

The bad: Two falls on balance beam on the first day of competition showed Johnson, 19, still has a ways to go to earn a spot on the Olympic team.

"I got a little nervous, a little hesitant," Johnson said of her beam routine, which earned the lowest score for the U.S. in that event. "But I think the thing that is most important is that I've shown everybody that I have upgraded and I'm working. I made mistakes. I showed that I'm human. But I showed the judges and the world that I'm serious."

At this point in Johnson's comeback, accomplishments are being measured more by skills than by scores. To protect the ACL she tore last year and not lose time to another serious injury, Johnson and longtime coach Liang Chow have been extremely cautious about adding back the exceptional difficulty that made Johnson's routines stand out in Beijing. That's why Johnson has not yet competed with a floor routine, though she does intend to do the event next year. She is also attempting to regain the Amanar vault (two-and-a-half twists off the vault table) that gave her a big edge in difficulty in Beijing. "That's one of those staples for an all-arounder," she said. "I've been working on it here and there."

For the Pan American Games, Johnson did add in one of the tricks that made her famous in 2008: a standing back tuck with a full twist on beam. But she fell on the skill during the team final, then lost focus later in the routine and came off again on a simple switch leap.

The former Olympic beam champion still has big potential in the event, though. She scored a very low 12.875, but each fall is a 1.0 deduction. Add in the points lost for the falls and other missed connections from them and her score would be competitive with some of the top beam workers at the world championships earlier this month.

Chow does not see Johnson's mistakes at the Pan American Games as detrimental to her Olympic campaign.

"I don't think [national team coordinator] Martha [Karolyi] or the selection committee is going to make a decision based on one meet," he said. "We have come a long way to this point. Our goal was competing at one of the major international meets this year. We achieved our goal for this year. But I'm not saying next year will be easy -- we have a lot of work ahead of us."

Unlike most world-class gymnasts, whose skills are constantly being measured against the skills of their nearest competitors, Johnson is most often compared to herself circa 2008. That can be hard, she said, since she is no longer the same gymnast. But what she is now is still to be determined, too.

"I honestly don't know what I'm capable of," she said, "and I think that's what so hard for me to handle right now. I don't know if I'm close to the end or if I'm miles away or light-years away."

Meanwhile, the past is quickly coming full circle. Four years ago, Johnson established herself by winning four gold medals at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro.

"It's cool thinking back to 2007, which was the launching pad of my career," she said. "Coming back in 2011, it was like my new start."