Thursday, August 14, 2008

Newest Olympic Heroes USA Style

So far the Olympics have been long on advertising and short on heroes but two genuine articles have emerged from the sports competition to capture the fancy of the world. Of course there is everyone's hero Michael Phelps closing in on a bevy of records from most gold ever to most gold in a year. This golden boy is about to knock the cash register off the wall as over $100 million in sponsorships will be collected if he wins the last three races.

Now for two reasons Phelps, the newest Greek God, has a Coltons Point connection as he is a native Marylander and his sports management firm, Octagon Athletes and Personalities from DC, NYC and the world has a Coltons Point resident doing all his graphic art work from logos to birthday cards, posters to movie covers. Guess who?

Our other hero, regardless of how she does in the individual competition, is Shawn Johnson from Iowa, which just happens to be my home state as well. We have Michael Phelps at 6 feet 4 inches and Shawn Johnson at 4 feet 9 inches which just goes to show you that heart has no relationship to physical size.

Here is what the national media is saying about the power packed pixie from Iowa.

Chicago Sun Times

Johnson is Little Miss Perfect
August 8, 2008

BY Greg Couch Sun Times Columnist

BEIJING — Shawn Johnson sat straight with her fingers clasped on the table directly in front of her, and her smile big, straight and never wavering.

"In the end," she said, "if I give everything I have, I’ll be happy."

In every Olympics, we look for some tiny sweetheart to fall in love with.
Johnson is it.

She is the American gymnast, who not only is favored to win the all-around competition, but also possibly take down China’s team in the most hotly contested U.S.-China team matchup in the Olympics.

That’s right, all 4-9 and 90 pounds of this 16-year-old, probably the toughest Olympian pound-for-pound, is set to take down the big bad guys. This is a Wheaties box cover waiting to happen.

"It’s such an honor to know that USA (gymnastics) picked me," she said.

But wait, you don’t know the half of it.

The truth about Johnson is — and remember I’m a critic for a living — she is perfect. Little Miss Perfect.

If that sounds like sarcasm, forget it.

No, I’ve been studying this, looking for the flaws to expose. If she has one at all, it’s only that perfection can be annoying. It can be fake or plastic. And Johnson does have that perfect smile.

But somehow, she makes it work.

Here’s the deal: Johnson is from West Des Moines, Iowa. She had far too much energy as a baby, and was doing pull-ups in her crib. I swear. So her mom put her in gymnastics when she was 6.

She’s a straight-A student, who, according to the Palm Beach Post, spends her free time walking dogs at a shelter and wiping off muddy footballs for her high school’s team. I swear.

Her parents? Junior high sweethearts who met at a roller rink.

She’s the one.

Now, I’ve always liked gymnastics during the Olympics, found it amazing and one of the most courageous sports. You get your moment and you have to nail it. It’s beautiful movements mixed with incredible power.

But I don’t like to see how its made. These little girls are constantly overtrained and hurt, with plenty developing eating disorders.

"I have been remarkably injury-free my whole career," she said. "Minor sprains, yes. But anything big? No."

Her parents have said over and over how important it was that Johnson have a "normal" life, which, with prodigies can mean they’re allowed to make one phone call a day while starving themselves in the sports academy they’ve moved to away from their parents.

Johnson stayed in Des Moines and goes to public school. A typical work schedule for these kids is 40-hours a week of training. Johnson does 25, which would seem to be plenty, and might explain her lack of injuries. She also says she’s on no particular diet.

That’s all the plan of her coach, Liang Qiao, who now goes by "Chow." See, when Johnson’s mother enrolled her in gymnastics as a 6-year old, it turned out that the guy running the place was Chow, a former Chinese champion gymnast.

Now, I’m not sure how many Chinese champions can accidentally be found in Des Moines, but that’s where he was. He came to the U.S. to go to the University of Iowa, and then staying nearby to open his gymnastics school.

The Washington Post

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Women's gymnastics at the Olympics always lifts or breaks your heart. On Wednesday, it did both. Few athletes in the world can make you catch your breath in disbelief or define the line of human beauty more powerfully that Shawn Johnson on the balance beam, Nastia Liukin on the uneven bars or Chinese captain Fei Cheng on the vault. Give a bird its wings, a squirrel his tree or a chimp her vines and they can't touch what these dervishes can do.

But if it's tears you want, the kind you feel inside when you see a small girl in glitter makeup trying to pretend she's 16 -- and eligible for the Olympics -- when she may only be 14, then National Indoor Stadium was the place to come for that emotion, too.

Yet the bitterest tears of all belong to an undeserving victim, U.S. captain Alicia Sacramone, who bombed on the last two events -- falling off the balance beam, then tumbling on her rump in floor exercises, a discipline where she was world champion in 2005. Her scores demolished the United States' (slim) chances at a comeback.

Sacramone has lots of disadvantages. She's 20, grown, smart, goes to Brown and is old enough to know what's at stake. All are nightmares to a gymnast. Better to be young, limber, oblivious and fearless.

As she left the mat, the two-year battle between the U.S. and China -- with each winning a world title by a tiny fraction of a point -- was as good as decided.

Sacramone fled her teammates, buried her head in her hand and began to cry. For the next 20 minutes, she fought back tears, sometimes failing. After the verdict was final, Johnson sat next to Sacramone, looped her arm through the older girl's, then laid her head on Sacramore's shoulder in an instant of consolation.

Such talent and grace, such sadness and sympathy, such ethical complexity, all tangled up together. In the end, it may be too much to digest. Who's juicing, who's not? Whose age is fake or real? Which judges are biased or wise? Forget it, Jake, it's the Olympics.

Only Johnson, who did well in all four events and is favored in Friday's all-around, saw the day in focus, got it exactly right with a kid's clarity. Sometimes complexity's a bore. Hold tight to the strong and solid -- what there is of it.

"I honestly think our team did great today," she said, smiling at a massive news conference. "We are proud of each other no matter what we do. We are like a family. We respect China. We will wear our silver medals proudly."

Johnson is 16. Really. Though she'll have a hard time growing wiser.

Christian Science Moniter

Amid US gymnastics disappointment, Shawn Johnson’s grace

Perhaps nothing at these Games will be more precious than that one moment, when we caught a glimpse of a young woman whose gifts stretch well beyond sports.

Mark Sappenfield, August 13, 2008 edition

When the women’s gymnastics team competition was all but over, save China’s last, perfunctory turn on the floor – when American team captain Alicia Sacramone no longer had anything to distract her from the mistakes that had made a gold medal impossible, Shawn Johnson sat beside her.

China would win. The US, who had promised so much, would be silver medalists.

Sacramone looked as though she was on the edge of a cliff, holding back that inevitable moment when the disappointment in her falls on floor and beam would overwhelm her and plunge her headlong into tears.

But Johnson smiled that smile that comes so easily for her, and took Sacramone’s arm in hers, almost as if they were an old married couple on a park bench. For a moment, however briefly, Sacramone smiled, too.

No matter what Johnson does in two days’ time on the women’s all-around competition, I hope the world will remember that image – of a 16-year-old girl who is not only an extraordinary athlete, but also something altogether more profound and worthy of celebration: an uncommon human being.

“She is a very loving person,” says her coach, Liang Chow. “That shows in her gymnastics.”

To imagine that Johnson could ever blame her captain for preventing her from being the Michael Phelps of women’s gymnastics is not to understand who she is. Before today, it was by no means inconceivable that Johnson could have won four golds: in the team event, the all-around, and the floor and beam individual events.

But she knows, as does the entire team, that without Sacramone, they would not have won the world championship last year. After a shaky rotation on beam then, Sacramone gathered the team together – in a huddle as gymnasts often do – but this time, very clearly under her wing. On that day, the floor event was flawless and America was world champions.

Today, the result was different. Johnson was not.

“We love her no matter what,” she says.

These sorts of things are said every day at the Olympic Games. Often they are honest, sometimes they are not. With Johnson, there is no doubting.

Much has been made of the age of the Chinese gymnasts. We know Shawn Johnson is 16. But she is so much older than that, too.

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