Fame, fortune and only 4-foot-10

When the letter and video arrived a few years back, Martha Karolyi didn't know who Shawn Johnson was.

"I believe this kid will help the U.S. team," Liang Chow, Johnson's coach, wrote, suggesting Karolyi look at the enclosed highlight tape and see for herself.

Quite an audacious statement, considering the U.S. women have stockpiled more gold, silver and bronze than most jewelers over the past four years. A gutsy move, too, for a young coach who had never worked with Karolyi, coordinator for the U.S. women's team.

Turns out, Johnson is even better than advertised.

The spunky 15-year-old from Iowa is the latest gymnast to inherit the "next" title &

as in "the next Mary Lou." She's already won the prestigious American Cup as well as the all-around title at the Pan American Games, and she heads to next week's national championships in San Jose, Calif., as a favorite for the U.S. title.

And right around the corner, the Beijing Olympics.

"She certainly brings world-level gymnastics," Karolyi said Thursday. "She is a gymnast with high skill level routines, and a gymnast who is very determined and very much able to compete at her best in any situation.

"We are expecting a very strong showing of this young gymnast."

The men's competition, highlighted by the return of Olympic champion Paul Hamm and twin brother Morgan, starts Wednesday. The women's competition begins Thursday, and it looks to be the toughest to call in years.

Johnson leads an impressive group of up-and-comers whose romp at last month's Pan Am Games showed they could be ready for even bigger things. But veterans Nastia Liukin, Chellsie Memmel and Jana Bieger are a formidable bunch, with 15 world championship medals among them.

Liukin would seem to be the favorite. She's won the last two U.S. titles, six of those world medals and was part of the Pan Am title team last month. But she's been slowed much of the last year by an ankle injury, and only competed on the uneven bars and balance beam at Pan Ams.

Memmel is the former world champ, but she, too, is recovering from an injury. Ditto for Bieger, the silver medalist at last fall's world championships.

That could open the door for Johnson.

Karolyi knew from the first time she watched that videotape that Johnson had potential. Though she's only 4-foot-10, she packs the same kind of power that made Mary Lou Retton and Kim Zmeskal, the first American to win the world all-around title, so formidable.

Yet she has the grace that international judges demand, and is technically precise. You won't see any bobbled dance steps or unpointed toes when she steps on the floor.

"I liked the little bubbly (girl)," Karolyi said. "I definitely had the feeling that this gymnast will become somebody. That's exactly what I said. I believe this little one will be somebody one day."

Johnson got everyone's attention last year when she won the U.S. junior title with a score that would have put her in contention for the senior crown. Since then, she's been unstoppable.

She took the all-around title at the junior Pan Am Games last fall, then won gold at a meet with Great Britain. Her victory at the American Cup not only put her in exclusive company &

Retton, Nadia Comaneci, Shannon Miller and Carly Patterson are former winners &

it got her some time on national TV.

"It was WEIRD!" she said, her eyes widening when she was asked what it was like to watch herself on television. "I was sweating watching I got so nervous. Even though I knew what was coming."

At the Pan Am Games, Johnson won the all-around title, as well as golds on bars and beam &

beating Liukin. She also took silver on floor.

Though only the top two women at nationals are guaranteed of making the squad for the world championships, it will be a shock if Johnson isn't on the team. Seven women will be chosen after nationals, but the six on the team and the alternate won't be decided until the Americans have to submit their lineup.

Worlds, which begin Sept. — in Stuttgart, Germany, are the qualifier for next summer's Beijing Olympics.

"When I started getting into the higher levels and we talked about going elite, I started thinking I maybe could work hard enough to get there and see myself in the Olympics," Johnson said.

"It makes me really nervous and really excited," she said. "Scared I won't be ready, but excited because I know that I could be ready and I might be going."

No matter how far Johnson goes, though, don't expect her personality to change.

The only child of Doug and Teri, Johnson is delightfully normal. She still goes to the local public school and can be found at football games on Friday nights in the fall &

even though practice usually keeps her from getting there until halftime.

She still likes hanging out with her parents and watching movies ("A Walk to Remember" is one of her favorites). And when she has free time, she walks dogs at a local animal shelter.

"One day, they brought her in and took her back to the cage and had her walk a Great Dane," Doug Johnson said, laughing. "That would have been great to get on a picture. She walked in and all she could see was his paws at first."

Though she's not far removed from the days when she was looking up to people &

Zmeskal was her favorite &

now Johnson is the one getting letters from young gymnasts. One little girl even did a school project on her; Johnson sent the girl one of her leotards.

"Teri and I often ask, 'What did we do to deserve this?' We don't really do anything," Doug Johnson said. "We don't force anything on her, and Chow is pretty much the same way. She's having fun at gymnastics."

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