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.
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.
Upon arriving in Beijing, she is asked her impressions. At the beginning of perhaps the greatest moment in her athletic life, her thoughts turn not to herself – to fear or excitement – but to her coach, who is from Beijing.
“It was really cool to be in Beijing airport and to hear him speak Chinese,” she says, beaming.
What she says next, she says with such earnestness it makes the heart melt: “It means I worked hard enough to get him back to his hometown.”
When Chow hears her say something like this, which she does often, his face softens, no longer the coach. In Houston, he needed a moment to compose himself. “When she says that, it makes me emotional,” he said. “She’s such a sweetheart.”
That she is even here in Beijing is a testament to her uniqueness. While many of her teammates have fathers and mothers as coaches, pushing them, she has parents that, at times, have sought to hold her back, not wanting their daughter to be warped by pressures that they cannot even imagine.
But there is an inner iron in their girl more often associated with swimmers and basketball players so muscle-bound that they could lift her like a barbell. “She is a very strong person, both physically and mentally,” says Chow.
And there is no doubting how she became so. At the first gymnastics press conference in Beijing, she explains what excites her about being here.
“It is great to be here with all these athletes who work so hard.”
She explains what it is like having Nastia Liukin, perhaps the world’s second-best gymnast and her top competition in the all-around, on the same team.
“It makes me motivated to go home and work ever harder.”
Chow explains how she behaves in practice.
“She just wants to get her work done – boom, boom, boom,” he laughs.
For other athletes, it could sound like something you might read on an inspirational framed picture: WORK ETHIC. Pat. Boilerplate. With Johnson, she is the picture itself, every automatic routine evidence of what hard work can accomplish.
There is something almost inconceivable in this – a 16 year old with such determination, all of it her own. And yet, alongside a hunger that most often seems linked to a chest-thumping, self-promoting bravado – that seems inextricable from it – there is the girl who sat beside her captain, speaking words of comfort and love in the moment when they were surely most desperately needed.
She was the mother, taking a loved one under her arm.
“She’s got a good little soul,” her mother, Teri, told Sports Illustrated.
No matter what her performance in the individual all-around Friday, perhaps nothing at these Games will be more precious than that one moment, when we all caught a glimpse of a young woman whose gifts stretch well beyond the world of sport.