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Page last updated at 18:15 GMT, Monday, 26 July 2010 19:15 UK
US gymnast Shawn Johnson seeks focus to succeed in 2012


Shawn Johnson shows the BBC her leotards, letters and a life-size cut out

By Ollie Williams
BBC Sport

Shawn Johnson must do more than simply shake off a knee injury to make the London Olympics - she will need to leave American celebrity culture behind.

The 18-year-old gymnast won gold on the balance beam for the United States at the Beijing Games in 2008, alongside three more silver medals, installing herself as a poster child of US sporting success and garnering a host of accolades, as much for her likeable personality as her achievements.

With that increased recognition came opportunities away from gymnastics and, since Beijing, Johnson has become a familiar face on television.

Following numerous appearances on chat shows and commercials, Johnson won the eighth series of Dancing With The Stars (the US equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing) in 2009.

Region: Des Moines, Iowa, United States
Born: 1992
Discipline: Gymnastics
Career highlights: 1 gold, 3 silver medals at Beijing Olympics 2008, 3 gold medals in 2007 World Championships

These and other media commitments led to speculation that Johnson would not return to gymnastics but, in May 2010, she announced her comeback to students in her home town of Des Moines, Iowa.

"There's something about gymnastics that called me back," she said. "I'm a little kid at heart. I can't get away from it and I missed it a lot."

However, two years out of the sport, coupled with a knee injury sustained on a skiing trip three months before her announcement, have left Johnson with an uphill struggle to regain her shape and her world-beating status in time for London 2012.

Johnson, who was introduced to gymnastics at the age of three and was competing regularly by the time she was seven-years-old, became an Olympic champion at 16.

Having been pipped to the all-around title (which takes into account performances on all four pieces of apparatus) by team-mate Nastia Liukin, Johnson exacted revenge on the balance beam, the final women's gymnastics event of the Beijing Games.

Shawn Johnson
At the Beijing Olympics, Shawn Johnson won gold on the balance beam plus silvers in the team event, the individual all-around event and the floor exercise.

The victory, achieved despite suffering nausea in the build-up, handed her gold at the last opportunity. She had looked set to miss out, having picked up silver in the team and individual floor events as well as the all-around.

At the time of the Games, her profile on the website of US Gymnastics suggested she planned to become a doctor or gymnastics coach in later life, but those ambitions were swept away in a media frenzy on her return to America.

She took a touring gymnastics show to more than 30 US states and graced the sofas of TV superstars Jay Leno, David Letterman and Ellen DeGeneres, before becoming the third Olympic gold medallist to win Dancing With The Stars (the other two being short-track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi).

For a girl who has never really had an injury before, this came at me like a brick wall
Shawn Johnson

"You get hotter by the day," enthused judge Bruno Tonioli - well-known to Strictly Come Dancing audiences in the UK - as Johnson racked up perfect scores to push Sex And the City star Gilles Marini into second place, with reality TV contestant Melissa Rycroft third.

However, Johnson's TV successes have come at a cost. She was stalked on the set of Dancing With The Stars and, a year after her starring role in the show's season finale, appeared in court to see 36-year-old Robert O'Ryan found guilty.

O'Ryan, who had trespassed onto the set of the ABC show, was arrested by police, who found loaded guns, a wooden club and handwritten poetry addressed to Johnson in his car.

"I thought nothing like this could happen to me and nothing would ever happen. But it was a reality check," said Johnson, who considered quitting the show after the incident.

"It made me change the way I go about everyday life. You hate to say, it's real. To see someone with that kind of obsession made me really scared."

Felled by skiing injury

Johnson could be forgiven for thinking a skiing trip in February 2010, while making appearances at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, would let her unwind from her hectic 2009.

But she returned on crutches, after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. Having undergone surgery, she spent six weeks in a leg brace, and was told to limit her training for six months.

"For a girl who has never really had an injury before, this came at me like a brick wall," added Johnson.

Referring to coach Liang Chow - her mentor since the age of five - she added: "He told me to look at it as a blessing.

Shawn Johnson
BBC World Class is a project uniting schools around the world through World Olympic Dreams

"I have been stumbling this past year-and-a-half, piled with work and busy with travel, struggling to figure out what it is I want to do with my life and if I want to continue with gymnastics."

By May, that had solidified into a definite "yes" to a return in 2012, but neither Johnson nor Chow are in any doubt as to the tests that lie ahead.

"This is just a start. And nothing is a sure thing, but I'm going to give it as big and best an effort as I can," said Johnson.

"We worked hard together on a daily basis for 2008, and now it's going to be even harder, for her and for me," explained Chow.

"Not only is she getting older, but also she has her knee injury as well. I'm excited, but I understand it won't be an easy road."

Temptations away from gymnastics continue to surface - in June 2010, video game developer Zoo Games confirmed Johnson would front Shawn Johnson Gymnastics for the Ninento DS and Wii games consoles.

That will give young wannabes the chance to become a virtual Olympic champion. For Johnson, the challenge is getting back to reality.

We will be following the progress of a selection of athletes and we would like to hear from you.

What would you like to ask about Shawn's build-up to the Olympics? What are her hopes? Is it hard to stay focused? What will her training regime be like? Send us your questions for Shawn using the form below.

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see also
US gymnast's 'impossible' comeback
20 Oct 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
In pictures: US gymnast Shawn Johnson
20 Oct 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
Shawn Johnson's love of learning
20 Oct 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
Shawn Johnson video message
26 Jul 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
Johnson wins Dancing with the Stars
26 Jul 10 |  World Olympic Dreams

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