Shawn Johnson retired today, ending her bid to compete at the London Olympics. I wrote this back in 2008, right after she won her first, and as it turns out, only gold medal. I'd say her life turned out just fine...
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Shawn Johnson came into the Olympics as the reigning World Champion and the odds-on favorite to win the gold in the All-Around. During the buildup to the Olympics, her face was on almost every magazine cover and Coca-Cola ad known to man. Her sweet demeanor and joyful exuberance made her a natural successor to Mary Lou Retton as "America's Sweetheart."
Most importantly, there was her wonderful, effervescent smile. The kind that Magic Johnson has. The kind that Mary Lou has. The kind that everyone loves, regardless of whether you're on Madison Avenue or Main Street, USA. The kind of smile that would endear her to you regardless of whether she passed you on the street or whether she was on a magazine ad or billboard.
With multi-million dollar endorsements in the works, it seemed like her profile would only increase if she did what she was expected to do and win the All-Around gold at Beijing. Indeed, it seemed like only a matter of time before we saw her face on every single advertisement and product known to mankind. Kind of like Peyton Manning.
It wasn't going to be a cakewalk, though. Reigning world champions haven't won the All-Around Gold at the Olympics as of late. Svetlana Khorkina was the top dog going into the 2004 Games, however, she was beaten by Carly Patterson for the gold. The same thing happened in 2000 when reigning world champ Maria Olaru took silver in the All-Around behind Simona Amanar, her teammate. And, of course, there was Kim Zmeskal who went into the 1992 Games as the big-time favorite for gold, only to fall off the balance beam and become a total non-factor during the competition. And yes, I had to look all of that up.
Still, Johnson had a clear edge going into the Olympics. Her biggest threat was her teammate and friend, Nastia Liukin. However, Johnson had beaten her so regularly that their rivalry was about as competitive as the Globetrotters/Generals feud.
However, a funny thing happened during Shawn Johnson's march towards immortality. She came up short. She won silver in the All-Around, losing to Liukin. She won silver in the floor exercises. She won silver in the team competition. A lot of gymnasts would sell their souls to get those kinds of results. For Johnson, however, it wasn't good enough. Not when she was supposed to be the next Mary Lou. Not when she was supposed to become an Olympic legend.
Unfortunately, no one remembers who came in second. Wheaties doesn't put out cereal boxes dedicated to the greatest silver medalists in Olympic history (otherwise, Michelle Kwan would have been a shoo-in). Companies don't give multi-million dollar endorsement deals to people who don't win the gold. Sure, it's not like Johnson will have to live the rest of her life in abject poverty. But compared to what her life could have been like had she picked up an extra 0.6 of a point to beat Liukin in the All-Around, Johnson probably lost a small fortune.
In a sport renowned for petty behavior, diva-like tantrums, and poor sportsmanship, Johnson could have pouted. She could have complained. She could acted like Svetlana Khorkina, who redefined the word "classless" when she claimed that Patterson's win in the All-Around was fixed. She could have protested the result the way Yang Tae-Young and the South Korean delegation did, even though they waited until after the event had concluded to complain about a scoring error. She could have done what that Swedish wrestler did when he threw away his bronze medal after complaining that he got robbed of a chance to go for gold.
No. Johnson continued to smile. Even though she must have been bitterly disappointed, she continued to smile. She smiled and congratulated Liukin when Liukin won the All-Around gold. She smiled and congratulated Sandra Izbaşa after the latter snatched away the gold in floor exercises from Johnson on the very last routine of the evening. She smiled and congratulated the Chinese team in the Team All-Around, even though some of them may have still had their baby teeth when they smiled back at her.
It wasn't like she was satisfied with silver. How could she be? However, with a maturity that belies her young age, she recognized the importance of being a class act and good sport. In losing, Shawn Johnson demonstrated the kind of grace and dignity that all athletes should have, regardless of whether they win or lose. Sure, winning is important. But it's also important to have respect for your opponent and for the sport itself. It seems like class and sports don't always go together, especially these days, when being controversial can be every bit as lucrative as being on the straight-and-narrow (maybe even more so). Every time we see someone like Usain Bolt showboat his way across the finish line, Maurice Greene and Jon Drummond flex their muscles and do their best Hulk Hogan impersonations, and Amy Van Dyken spit into someone's lane before a race, we lose a little more faith in sports and in the athletes who are supposed to be above it all. Maybe it's unfair to expect human beings under an inordinate amount of pressure to show the kind of dignity that we would like to see from them. But if a 16 year old girl can do it, then why can't grown men and women do it too?
And, of course, good things come to those that wait. On her final shot to win a gold medal, Shawn Johnson came through, earning the gold on the balance beam. Her smile may have been a little wider than during those previous events, but it was no less bright. Shawn Johnson can finally call herself an Olympic champion. But she was always world class, even before she won the gold. Sometimes, that's more difficult than winning.