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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Shawn Johnson performs like the golden girl

Shawn Johnson performs like the golden girl that she is:Joe Posnanski

Jerry Seinfeld always says that the silver medal at the Olympics has to be the worst one. Think about this: If you win gold, you feel good, obviously. And if you win the bronze medal, hey, you finished third, and you still get a nice parting gift, something like the home version of the Olympics.

But, as Seinfeld says, “When you win that silver, it’s like, ’Congratulations, you almost won. Of all the losers, you came in first of that group. You’re the number one loser.”

That sounds harsh, maybe, but the Olympics can be harsh and not only for professional comedians. It was at the Olympics where a reporter asked the Moroccan runner Hiram El Guerrouj, “How does it feel to let down 30 million people?” It was at the Olympics that an athlete, a weightlifter I believe, was presented with the more direct query: “You’re a national disgrace. Please respond.”

It was at the Olympics where Lindsey Jacobellis’ was hounded after her hot-dogging near the finish cost her gold. “I won silver, isn’t that pretty good?” she pleaded through tears after the race.

This was the background Tuesday evening as gymnast Shawn Johnson prepared for her favorite event, the balance beam. See, Johnson had won three silver medals at these Olympics. That was it. Three silvers. She said that this did not bother her. She said that the silver medals meant the world to her — she worked so hard for them. She insisted that she would not trade any of them for gold.

It’s worth pointing out here that Shawn Johnson is a 16-year-old girl from Iowa, so really this makes good sense. In my experience, Iowans are some of the nicest and most unassuming folk you will find anywhere. Iowans are the sort of people who may cheer an opponent’s good play at a game. Iowans are the sort of people who would not trade hard-earned silver even for gold.

Still, while Johnson put on a positive face, it’s likely that the three silver medals thing was bothering her a little more than she was letting on. She was, after all, defending world champion. Her roommate and gymnastics teammate Nastia Liukin, who edged out Johnson for the all-around gold medal, said plainly: “Three silvers is hard.” And it is hard, especially because gymnastics is a judged sport, and the judging can be vague and wildly inconsistent. Second place in gymnastics can be tough to live with.

Maybe that sort of pressure played a part in Johnson feeling sick on Tuesday before the competition. She said her head hurt. Her stomach hurt. She felt nervous and uneasy. She thought it was probably because of exhaustion. Whatever it was, though, Johnson ran through her routine on the balance beam, her favorite event, but it felt all wrong. She made basic mistakes, the kind she had long outgrown. She practiced again, and she made more of the same mistakes. She was not quite sure what was happening to her.

“Stop,” her coach Liang Chow ordered. Chow has been her coach for a long time. He had grown up in the Chinese sports system — he left home when he was 10 in order to become a champion gymnast — and then he somehow ended up in Iowa. And after thinking about it, he decided that the most important thing for great athletes was finding balance in their lives. He told Johnson to stop practice and to rest, clear her head, forget the pressure, forget all about the judges and scores and medals. Just perform.

This made sense to Johnson. This was her last competition, the last time she would get to do her thing at the Olympics, she did not want to waste it. She warmed up again, and again, and again — she took seven trial runs — and then she felt ready.

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