When you watch U.S. gymnast Shawn Johnson compete in the Olympics, you’ll see a world champion who is perfectly suited for this year’s Games, which promise to be more physically challenging than ever.
Johnson, 16, has trained since she was 3, and she’s more than up to the task, given that she can twist her body 2 1/2 times while leaping off the vault. For that and many other feats, she is the reigning individual women’s all-around world champion.
“The things that she can do are downright ridiculous,” says Shannon Miller, the top performer on the 1996 gold-medal-winning women’s team; she won an individual gold in the balance beam event, as well. “Shawn does flips and turns and moves that you’re used to seeing the men do. Now, here comes this little firecracker on the floor doing the same things, and you’re amazed.”
Just after the U.S. trials, Miller and Johnson got together for a USA WEEKEND Magazine photo shoot and to discuss this year’s Olympics. The competition will be defined by the intense rivalry between the United States and China. “Both our team and China’s are only getting stronger and stronger,” Johnson says. “We respect each other, but we are competitors. This makes it more exciting for fans.”
The fact that extra points will be awarded to gymnasts based on the level of difficulty of a routine’s physical aspects should encourage them to try new, harder moves. “I’m excited to see this,” Miller says, “because athletes are going to be doing things that people like me never thought could be possible.”
Adds Johnson: “You’ll still have some fans who will want to see the artistry of the past. But I think most will want to see the athletes performing skills that have never been seen before, taking the sport to the next level. It will be interesting to see who will be able to physically hold up under this system and who won’t.”