If you’ve been following gymnastics closely over the past few months, Shawn Johnson’s retirement – officially announced yesterday – shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. But at the same time, we’re left with a lot of unanswered questions.
In hindsight, it seems overwhelmingly obvious. After all, Shawn hasn’t competed in a single competition since the 2011 Pan American Games, which were now almost eight months ago – not an encouraging sign for a gymnast who obviously needed a few more competitions to regain her competitive confidence and consistency before making a realistic run at this summer’s Olympics. She also hasn’t shown up for national team training camps this year, another strong indication that she either hasn’t been in competitive form or possibly suffered another physical setback that wasn’t publicized. When she dropped out of last weekend’s U.S. Classic – her final competitive opportunity before the upcoming U.S Championships and Olympic Trials – many fans suspected something was up.
When many began to take notice that she’s been spending an awful lot of time traveling, making appearances, and doing promotions over the last few months, the skepticism regarding the seriousness of her training began to grow. A recent interview with coach Liang Chow also hinted that Shawn might not even be ready to compete at this week’s U.S. Championships, adding further to speculation that perhaps she had already retired – under the radar. And it’s been no secret that her book, Winning Balance, was set to be released this very week as well – prompting some to propose that Shawn was strategically waiting to announce her retirement to coincide with this week’s events. With all these signs suggesting that Shawn Johnson had either already aborted her comeback attempt or was planning on doing so, why were we so reluctant to believe it?
Because we didn’t want to.
And let’s face it, we still had several legitimate reasons to believe that, despite being suspiciously out of competitive action over the last 7-8 months, the 2008 Olympic all-around silver medalist was still planning to compete at this week’s U.S. Championships and make a serious run for London. For starters, she was on the official U.S. Championships roster – in the same rotation, in fact, as former rival and 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin. Watching two of America’s biggest gymnastics stars in history compete together as underdog contenders for a second Olympic Games would have made for storybook headlines at this week’s national championships.
Perhaps this is why, when we heard yesterday’s announcement, many of us felt a sudden whirlwind of conflicting emotions – sadness, surprise, and disappointment…mixed with a sense of confirmation and closure…and muddled with an overall bit of confusion – all at the same time. Was there a hint of anger blended in as well? For many fans, I think so.
Shawn Johnson has been an absolutely admirable athlete over the past five years. With the power and competitive tenacity of a Kim Zmeskal, the personality and marketability of a Mary Lou Retton, and the world and Olympic medals of a Shannon Miller, she’s been the picture perfect icon in American women’s gymnastics. Even after being defeated in the Olympic all-around finals by adversary Nastia Liukin, there’s been something about Shawn Johnson that has just bred popularity. Her innocent “girl-next-door” looks, genuine smile, candid interviews, and uncanny ability to rise to the occasion under pressure absolutely drew fans to her – whether it was on a gymnastics floor or a “Dancing With The Stars” stage.
Below are a couple of the recent interviews with Shawn:
These interviews, which were done in the last few weeks, add more confusion than enlightenment surrounding her retirement – in particular, when exactly it happened. The interviews seem to suggest that Shawn still intended to try for London as recently as last week, and yet the timeline of recent events certainly suggests otherwise. And there’s no denying that the spark and gymnastics confidence that defined Shawn in 2008 are curiously missing from her voice. Perhaps she’s been contemplating the decision but didn’t truly reach her final conclusion until the last few days? Given her history of candor and honesty, I’m willing to give Shawn the benefit of the doubt on this. Having said that, there’s no question that many fans who bought tickets to this week’s U.S. Championships under the impression that Shawn Johnson would be competing are likely feeling a bit misled.
We had another reason to believe that Shawn still intended to try for London – she seemed to have a reasonable shot at it. Despite a disastrous first competitive outing at the 2011 U.S. Classic, Shawn roared back and looked fantastic at the 2011 U.S. Championships, hitting 6 out of 6 routines, appearing much more like the Shawn Johnson we all remembered, and eventually earning a spot as an alternate on the 2011 world championship team. Her performance at the 2011 Pan Am Games was even more encouraging, as she reinstituted her standing full on beam and showed a stronger vault and an upgraded bar routine. Even though Shawn fell twice on beam at that meet, she was clearly moving upward, and quite rapidly in fact.
That’s why her absence from competition this year has been a bit perplexing. She and coach Chow have made no secret about the fact that her knee has given her a lot of trouble during the entire comeback process, and it’s quite understandable that this has prevented her from performing in the all-around during her return. But given the fact that she was able to handle bars, beam, and even vault quite well in 2011, why wouldn’t she have attempted to at least compete as a bars and beam specialist at this year’s nationals and Olympic Trials? She would have been a very legitimate addition to the mix of Olympic contenders relying primarily (or solely) on bars and beam to make it to London this year – including Nastia Liukin, Rebecca Bross, Kyla Ross, and even Bridget Sloan. Shawn’s beam at last year’s nationals was rock solid and among the very best in the field – even better than Aly Raisman and Sabrina Vega, two of the gymnasts who ended up in the team finals lineup at worlds a few weeks later. And her bars were clean and solid, scoring consistent 14’s at nationals and even a little higher with her upgrades at the Pan Am Games. Her new bar routine seemed clean, smart, and reliable – her trademark form and handstands looked as good as ever, and her newly added Weiler kips didn’t even require her to let go of the bar. It was certainly conceivable that, with just a few more improvements, Shawn could have been a very realistic contender as a bars and beam specialist in London.
So why didn’t she choose this route? We simply don’t know.
Shawn Johnson is a champion, and I have a great deal of admiration for her as both a gymnast and as a person. She’s been one of the most honest, upfront, and likeable American gymnasts in history, and it would have been a real treat to see her follow this second Olympic pursuit all the way through, regardless of how it ended. Many of us are disappointed to see her drop out of the mix, but at the same time respect her efforts in making what was a very impressive comeback to the most difficult sport in the world – after a two-year layoff and a very serious knee injury. I might even buy her book when it is released later this week; I would guess it’s filled with a lot of inspirational material from one of the greatest athletes of our day.
But there may eventually need to be a sequel to Winning Balance – one that answers many of the questions we all now have and which will likely continue to arise over the coming weeks…questions surrounding Shawn’s comeback, what skills she ended up achieving, what exactly happened that kept her out of competition over the last eight months, and when she truly decided to end her quest for a second Olympic Games. For now, we’re simply left to watch along with Shawn as the rest of the U.S. Olympic contenders battle for spots on this year’s Olympic team, which will be highly favored to win America’s first Olympic team gold since the Magnificent Seven’s historic feat in Atlanta in 1996. It would have seemed so fitting for Shawn Johnson to be a part of it, but sometimes fate simply has other plans. We’ll be cheering the U.S. team along with you, Shawn, and will be doing the same for you as you embark on your next adventure. After seeing what you’ve accomplished over the past five years, we know it will be nothing short of extraordinary.