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Comebacks almost always start in the springtime.

Whether it’s the sunshine, the birds, the end of school…we may never know, but there’s something very magical about the whole reawakening of the world that occurs between the months of March and May.  Spring represents new beginnings.  Young kids begin to sense the end of school and the freedom of summer that awaits just around the corner.  High school and college students celebrate graduations and prepare for the exciting next phase of their lives.  “Spring break” provides a refreshing escape from the real world for children and adults alike, and families take vacations they’ve been saving up for all year.  It’s when adults tend to change jobs and move into new homes; it’s when we all tend to re-evaluate the decisions we’ve made, where we are in life, and where we’re going.  It’s when retired gymnasts become revitalized and reminded of what they’re most passionate about.

When I first heard that Shawn officially announced her comeback this week, my immediate reaction was not one of surprise.  She recently stated she had a big announcement forthcoming that her fans would be excited about (and I didn’t sense it was some clothing or perfume line…), and she always seemed to have the true passion for the sport that I thought was going to grab her again before too long.  And I really think her recent ACL tear made her appreciate the sport and her health FAR more than she ever had before, and the overall “comeback” required for the rehab of an injury like that often inspires an athlete to begin pursuing athletic goals again.  Going through the rigors of rehabilitation requires the same type of discipline and regimented physical effort that gymnastics does, and it really helps an athlete “reaquaint” himself or herself with his or her body again.  The athlete begins to appreciate the amazing healing process that the body undergoes and becomes reminded of how incredible rewarding it feels to achieve goals and experience progress.  It’s all part of what makes athletes great, and it’s part of who Shawn Johnson is.  I believe this whole process has been exactly the inspiration that Shawn Johnson needed to finally make this decision…and it’s the perfect time of year.

The next thought that popped into my head was an image of the gymnast we’ve all compared Shawn Johnson to, and whose similarities to Shawn become more and more striking the further down their careers we go.  Not only did Kim Zmeskal and Shawn Johnson share the same body types, physical strengths and weaknesses, and competitive abilities, but they practically look like twin sisters when we compare pictures at similar ages.  But the similarities don’t stop there.  Both had their “breakout” year two years before the Olympics (Kim in 1990 and Shawn in 2006, though she was still a junior because of the new age requirements).  Both won three national titles leading up to the Olympics, both won world all-around titles and American Cup titles, both won world or Olympic floor and beam titles, and both were the favorites for the all-around title in their respective Olympics.  The number one rival for each was her own American teammate – Shannon Miller in Kim’s case, and Nastia Liukin in Shawn’s.  And despite each beating her rival during the team competition at the Olympics (in the optionals), each fell short of expectations during the all-around finals.  Both retired from the Olympics originally, and now both made a comeback two years later.  Both were in the springtime.

Are Shawn’s uncanny similarities to Kim a good omen or a bad one?  Well, the similarities get even crazier when we discover that both gymnasts tore their ACL’s at 18 years old…Kim while tumbling on floor at the beginning of her comeback and Shawn while snow-skiing for her 18th birthday.  It’s no secret that Kim and Shawn’s bodies have reacted very similarly to immediate retirement from the sport.  Although Kim’s comeback (especially her 1998 comeback) should be considered one of the most admirable of all time, her biggest challenge – and the one that prevented her from having a legitimate shot at the 2000 Olympic team – was her body.  Although Kim was still extremely powerful during her comebacks, the “fit” and “compact” body of her earlier years had transformed into a thicker one that was much more injury prone.  Will Shawn’s fate be the same?

Below is a chart that summarizes many of the incredible similarities between these two gymnasts:

Kim Zmeskal Shawn Johnson
Born February 6, 1976 January 19, 1992
Strengths Power on floor and vault, solid on beam, overall consistency, incredible competitor under pressure Power on floor and vault, solid on beam, overall consistency, incredible competitor under pressure
Weaknesses Weak difficulty on bars Weak difficulty on bars
Body type Stocky, compact Stocky, compact
Consecutive national titles Three (1990-1992) Three (2006-2008)
First junior national title 1989 (age 13) 2006 (age 14)
First senior national title 1990 (age 14) 2007 (age 15)

*score in 2006 would have won senior title at age 14

First world championships 1991 (age 15) 2007 (age 15)
First world all-around title 1991 (age 15) 2007 (age 15)
Event where world all-around title clinched Floor Floor
Individual event titles Floor (1992 worlds)

Beam (1992 worlds)

Floor (2007 worlds)

Beam (2008 Olympics)

First Olympic Games 1992 (age 16) 2008 (age 16)
Expectations going into Olympics All-Around gold All-Around gold
Biggest rival going into Olympics Teammate Shannon Miller Teammate Nastia Liukin
All-Around result from  team optionals at Olympics 1st (39.687)

(rival Shannon Miller 2nd)

1st (62.725)

(rival Nastia Liukin 2nd)

Attempted comeback after Olympics 1994 (age 18) 2010 (age 18)
Torn ACL 1994 (age 18) 2010 (age 18)
Biggest obstacle during comeback Weight gain, much more injury prone than prior career ???

No matter what Shawn’s future holds, there’s no question that this is incredibly exciting for American gymnastics.  Perhaps Shawn could be America’s secret weapon to hold off the Russians, the Chinese, and the Romanians to finally stand atop the Olympic team medal podium again.  Much like her predecessor, Shawn is incredibly passionate about the sport of gymnastics, and she was born to perform.  I wish her all the best during the journey that lies ahead