Iowa Gymnast Tumbles Toward Olympic Glory You've probably never heard of Shawn Johnson, especially if you live outside of Iowa. But the 16-year-old gymnast from West Des Moines is the reigning World All-Around champion and is considered one of the favorites to win gold at the Summer Olympics in Beijing.
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Iowa Gymnast Tumbles Toward Olympic Glory

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Iowa Gymnast Tumbles Toward Olympic Glory

Iowa Gymnast Tumbles Toward Olympic Glory

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

You may never have heard of Shawn Johnson, but you will. She's a 16-year-old gymnast from West Des Moines, Iowa, and she's among the best in the sport right now. NPR is spotlighting a number of the athletes you'll be hearing about when the Beijing Olympics roll around this summer.

Iowa Public Radio's Jeneane Beck has the story of Shawn Johnson. Remember that name.

JENEANE BECK: Since winning the world championship in September, Johnson has become a fixture in Iowa newspapers and on TV. A local car dealership gave her a brand new Land Rover for her 16th birthday and she's been honored at the state capital three times.

Unidentified Woman: The House of Representatives honors Shawn Johnson, a remarkable young athlete whose dedication...

BECK: During the ceremony, people stand on their tippy-toes straining to catch a glimpse of the tiny gymnast. At 4'9" tall and 90 pounds, she's easily engulfed in a sea of television cameras and microphones. Afterwards, Johnson smiles for picture after picture. But at practice two weeks later, she's serious and deliberate, barely uttering a word in two hours.

Inside a cavernous gymnasium in West Des Moines, Johnson and seven other girls are on the floor in push-up position. They're walking on their hands, dragging their legs behind them on a Frisbee to strengthen their stomach muscles.

Mr. LANG QIAO (Coach): No wiggling.

Ms. SHAWN JOHNSON (Gymnast): (Unintelligible).

Mr. LANG: But you made it look so easy.

BECK: Johnson trains six days a week with former Chinese national team member Lang Qiao and his wife Luen Jiang(ph). She says the relationship with her coaches is one of the reasons she's working so hard to make the Olympic team headed to Beijing.

Ms. JOHNSON: Kim and Lee, his wife, they're both from China. They were extremely successful athletes and it would just be the biggest honor to me to be able to take them back to their home country and still show how successful they are.

Mr. LANG: That was good. Okay. Come on, ladies.

BECK: After more than hour of strengthening exercises, the girls begin practicing tumbling passes. Johnson runs a few steps, launches herself into a roundoff back handspring then flips and twists through the air before landing into a pit of soft foam cubes.

Mr. LANG: That was better one actually. You did not go as much backwards.

BECK: Johnson's father Doug says she climb out of her crib before she was a year old and then treated her bunk bed like a trapeze swing. By the age of three, she spent the majority of her dance classes watching gymnasts doing cartwheels at the other end of the room. When she was able to mimic them perfectly her parents figured it was time to make the switch.

Mr. DOUG JOHNSON (Shawn's Father): I suppose if we had to do it over again, we wouldn't change anything. I mean, I don't think. I mean, we would love to have her with us all the time.

BECK: Johnson captured the 2006 U.S. Junior National all around title at the age of 14. Just one year later she won the international all around title in the senior division.

Ms. JOHNSON: I love the pressure. I love the adrenaline rush when you have to bring it home and give the routine of your life and stuff. I mean, that's what we live for. We live for the thrill and the competition and stuff.

BECK: Lately Johnson's been getting attention nationally. She's appeared on the "Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "Access Hollywood" and was named Person of the Week by "ABC World News Tonight." But she says the highlight was her appearance on a nationally-televised event for cancer research shortly after winning the world championship last fall.

Ms. JOHNSON: But I have to admit, even that gold medal doesn't compare to this - a chance to introduce my favorite group in the entire world. Please welcome back Rascal Flatts.

BECK: If Johnson's past performances are any guide she's nearly assured a spot on the Olympic team. And if she repeats the kind of gold medal performance she gave at the world championship, she could just find her picture on the front of a Wheaties box.

For NPR News, I'm Jeneane Beck in Des Moines.

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