New Face of Gymnastics

(Photos By The Associated Press And Getty Images)
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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- She loves going shopping at the big mall in town. She has dissected a cow's eye in biology but likes her class in Modern American Literature better. She blushes when asked if she has a boyfriend. And she's counting the days until she gets her driver's license.

In many ways, Shawn Johnson's life is like that of any girl who just turned 16.

But on this day -- a bitterly cold afternoon in central Iowa, with snow blowing sideways and a blizzard in the forecast -- she's not allowed to wear her North Face fleece jacket indoors. Reporters have flown in from all over the country to talk to the country's best hope for gymnastics gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and it's important that she be photographed wearing the Adidas warm-up jacket that's not keeping her quite warm enough.

Adidas is one of the corporate sponsors that has latched on to the mega-watt smile and towering talent of this tiny gymnast, who's 4 feet 8 1/2 on her tiptoes. After a gentle word from her mother, followed by a barely discernible protest of, "But I'm freezing," Johnson slips off her bulky fleece and resumes the interview where she left off, as if nothing had happened.

"Tucker," she says with a smile.

That's the name of her dog.

Her two cats?

"Max and Vern."

The Beijing-bound journalists want to know everything -- what brand of jeans she likes, what she got for Christmas, whether she eats bread or has been to the movies lately. And they're recording it with furious scribbles, TV cameras and tape recorders, as if Johnson were delivering a State of the Union address.

After the interview, marketing executives from Coca-Cola, Adidas and Iowa-based Hy-Vee grocery stores, Johnson's chief sponsors, talk about her "personal brand."

According to the representative from Coca-Cola, Shawn Johnson and the soft-drink giant share "brand attributes" -- such as "genuine," "real," "fun" and "authentic."

Gushes the man from Adidas, "When you see that smile, you want to be part of it!"

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