There are few status symbols quite like an Olympic medal.
Kathy Johnson has been conducting clinics for many of her 24 years, but now -- after having won a silver and a bronze medal in gymnastics in Los Angeles in 1984 -- she sees more wide eyes in those eager, young faces than ever before.
"There is something that changes when you have an Olympic medal," said Johnson, who was in Fairfax City yesterday for a clinic promoting the McDonald's American Cup gymnastics invitational, to be held at Patriot Center, March 1-2. "If it says 'Olympic medal,' you could walk in with a paper bag over your head and they'd still sit there and listen to you. It's like the unknown gymnast.
"I mean, that's nice to be known for that, but you kind of want to say, 'Enough of that. Now get to know me as a person.' I'd like to be respected for my knowledge and for what I did to get here. There is more to me than just a medal."
"It's instant credibility," said Bart Conner, who won two gold medals in Los Angeles and participated in the clinic with Johnson yesterday.
They both enjoy talking to aspiring youngsters, just as they both enjoy talking to television viewers while serving as analysts for two networks, and they both enjoy appearing in movies.
"Go to the Olympics and make movies, it's a great life," joked Conner, who will appear in a movie with Talia Shire that's due out next month. "After the Olympics, I appeared in a couple episodes of 'Highway to Heaven' with Michael Landon, and I met a few people, shook a few hands and got a few phone calls."
"It's one thing that does compare to gymnastics," said Johnson, who will be in a movie called "American Anthem," based on the life of fellow Olympian Mitch Gaylord. "You still have to perform and you still have to be on. We have endurance and can focus on something for a long time, whereas some people like to take breaks every few minutes."
Johnson and Conner, 26, both retired from competition after the Olympics.
"You and I are like fossils," Conner said jokingly to Johnson, who was sitting across the table. "I see people on airplanes," said Conner, "and they still say, 'Oh, are you looking forward to the '88 Olympics?' They forget that Kathy and I have been around since 1976." Added Johnson, "I'll be around in '88, but it won't be in a leotard."
But the exhibition schedule still keeps them flipping.
"I guess we'll do it 'til we all die," Johnson said, adding with a bit more realism, "or until we stop filling arenas. But we had 16,000 in Minneapolis and New Orleans recently, and it's a year and a half after the Olympics."
After spending as much time as Johnson and Conner did in working toward a goal, it's possible to expect too much from the goal's realization. But neither said the Olympics were anticlimactic.
"Some things you get psyched for and then get there only to say to yourself, 'This is it, huh?' " Conner said. "But the Olympics were so magical, partly because they were such a great success. When we were marching into the coliseum, I knew it was going to be great."
Being at home was obviously an advantage.
"The crowds were different from most gymnastics competitions . . . " Johnson said. "Normally, if you do a fine routine, you can get a lot of applause. But there, they were cheering from the minute we walked in. They were yelling and screaming, sometimes in the middle of a routine. In the vault, I'm running down the runway and they're yelling, 'Go, Kathy!' I was so pumped, my feet weren't touching the ground. They had cowbells and signs and flags. It was like a football game."