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.
When the women’s gymnastics team competition was all but over, save China’s final 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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In the battle of the world's two best teams, 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.
At a pre-Olympics press gathering in Houston, she is one of the girls. There is chatter about her upcoming high school prom, and the dress she will wear. Yet there is something in her answers, something in the calmness so obviously apparent – either on the beam or in front of a microphone – that seems almost like wisdom.