Undeniably a Champion

Post columnist Sally Jenkins recaps Olympic gymnastics events from in Beijing, headlined by Shawn Johnson's gold medal in the balance beam.
By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Shawn Johnson is tigerish and alive, forceful where other gymnasts are ethereal, or in the case of some of her rivals, almost wraithlike. At times at the Beijing Games, it seemed as if the marks of the gymnastics judges were based purely on a preference for a certain esthetic. To be frank, it was almost as though they punished Johnson being too overtly muscular.

Tuesday night, Johnson surveyed the span of the balance beam with her hands on her hips, as if it were nothing more than a cheap two-by-four. Here's one way to deal with personal disappointment at the Olympics: hop on a piece of wood that's four inches wide and intolerant of mistakes, and stick your landings as if you're driving nails into it with your feet, until you force the judges to give you a gold medal.

Johnson dusted chalk on her hands and stood poised for her last try of the Games, managing to give the impression of towering resoluteness, even at 4 feet 9, in a blue leotard with red gauntlet cuffs. She leapt firmly onto the beam to begin her routine, and for the next 90 seconds she barely trembled. Off to the side sat that panel of adjudicators in their official blazers, who had marked her unsympathetically all week for being too, well, strong. What they couldn't know was that she didn't give a rip about their opinion anymore. "I didn't really care how the scores went up, what the placements were," she said.

She delivered a series of commanding, gravity-defying aerials, flying splits and cartwheels, until her feet seemed to spend more time off the beam than on it. When they did touch down, they did so convincingly. The performance not only earned her the individual gold medal in the balance beam with a score of 16.225 to nudge out teammate Nastia Liukin, but a priceless realization, too. What more valuable two things could a teenager take home from the Olympics than the gold, and the understanding that self-worth doesn't hinge on the opinions of others?

"I knew in my heart what I deserved," she said.

For Johnson, 16, of West Des Moines, Iowa, it was a cathartic end to a confidence-shaking week. Ordinarily an athlete of bounding charisma, her three successive runner-up finishes -- in the team event, the all-around and the floor exercise -- had left her emotionally brittle. In the all-around competition, the difference between her and Liukin was all but imperceptible. Liukin, who looks like a willow branch in motion, won the gold simply because the judges deemed her the more physically elegant performer. In the floor exercise, Johnson took silver again with a performance that was physically almost faultless, only to be surpassed by the very last competitor, Romania's Sandra Izbasa. To a world champion accustomed to finishing first, the stinginess of the judges had begun to seem harsh.

"I'm totally, fantastically happy for her," U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. "She needed this. This helps her, gives her a good feeling for the future. All the time we tried to assure that she did an excellent job, that she did her job at the highest level, and that's what we care about."

Through it all, Johnson was consistently gracious, never failing to compliment the winners and refusing to whine about her marks. "For some reason, the judges were not giving me the scores I was used to," she said, simply. "I have to respect that."

But the long week of trials and the effort to maintain her emotional composure finally caught up to her on Tuesday morning before the competition, when she came down with a raging headache and an upset stomach. She had had four days to stew over her silver medal finishes, especially in the individual all-around. It couldn't have helped that just across the room was the gold medalist, Liukin, with whom she shared a suite.

As the days went by, Johnson practiced her beam routine to the point that it almost fell apart. It was her strongest event, and her favorite one, and suddenly she was making uncharacteristic errors. A succession of seven shaky warmup routines Tuesday morning left her enervated. She made mistake after mistake, each repetition worse than the last. "I was very tired," she said. "I was just not feeling normal."

But as the competition approached on Tuesday evening, Johnson's feeling about her silver medals changed, as if they grew shinier. "I thought about it, and I didn't care," she said. What mattered was her own internal judgment of her performance. "Everything happens for a reason," Johnson said. "Those silvers mean more to me than anything else could. Everything that's happened this week, I don't know how to explain it. But it's a feeling I'd never want to replace."

By the time Johnson stood before the beam ready to begin her routine, she wasn't thinking about a gold medal, but about her personal measurement of a successful Olympics. "I didn't want to leave here knowing I could have done better." When she finished, the scores were strictly a formality for what she knew was a worthy performance. As the numbers came up, putting Johnson in first place, she accepted a hug from Liukin, who gave voice to what everyone who had watched Johnson all week was thinking: that a lovely gymnast, and a thoroughly classy champion, had gotten a just reward. "Finally," she said.

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