Smiling, jumping, having fun, Johnson takes control of U.S. nationals

SAN JOSE, Calif. &

The meet was only halfway over when Shawn Johnson caught the eye of a couple of team trainers and gave them a playful smile.

The kid looked like she owned the place.

And at the rate she's going, she's going to own a whole lot more in the next year.

The 15-year-old who's been touted as "the next Mary Lou" lived up to all the hype and then some Thursday night at the U.S. gymnastics championships. While the veterans who've been raking in gold, silver and bronze like celebutantes the last three years were struggling, Johnson performed like she's been doing this for years.

She leads the two-day competition with 61.7 points, 1.55 ahead of Ivana Hong and 2.65 in front of Nastia Liukin, the two-time defending champion who is fifth after several major mistakes.

The finals are Saturday night.

"It feels good. I don't want to think about it too much because 50 percent is not too much," Johnson said. "I just want to polish up every routine. Go bigger and better."

If she pulls that off, the rest of the field &

not to mention the world &

better look out.

Johnson won the U.S. junior title last year, and has been on a roll since then. She won her first meet as a senior, the prestigious American Cup, then followed it up with a victory at last month's Pan American Games.

But those meets didn't have nearly the pressure that nationals do. Nor was the competition as stiff.

Not only was Johnson a fan favorite Thursday night, she was going up against Liukin, a former world champion (Chellsie Memmel), the current world silver medalist (Jana Bieger) and the 2005 world champ on floor (Alicia Sacramone). She took all of them on with little trouble.

Granted, Liukin has only been training full-time for about two weeks because of an ankle injury that's been lingering since last fall. She didn't expect to win here, and almost certainly won't after nearly sitting down on her vault landing and falling on her bars dismount.

But even if Liukin was healthy, Johnson would have made things interesting for her. She posted the best scores on vault, floor and beam and came in a close second to Liukin on bars, whose degree of difficulty was high enough to make up for her ungainly fall at the end.

"I'm very proud of her," Memmel said. "I thought she did awesome. She's an amazing gymnast, and a very fierce competitor."

Not that you'd know it by the smile that seems to be a permanent part of Johnson's face.

Johnson has the kind of bubbly personality that America adores &

again, think Mary Lou. She gives her coaches, Liang Chow and Li Zhuang, props by spelling out her name in Chinese characters on her leotard. She still goes to public school. She walks dogs at the local animal shelter in what little spare time she has.

And she makes a tough sport look ridiculously easy.

The balance beam is the most nerve-racking event, with gymnasts doing flips and twists on a beam that's a mere four inches wide. And four feet off the ground, no less. But Johnson is so solid, she struts and somersaults as if she's on flat ground.

There was no taking time to gather herself for the next trick. She banged them out efficiently, including one in which she did a back flip with a twist from a dead standstill.

On the floor exercise, she got such great height on her opening tumbling pass that fans could almost have run out for a soda before she landed.

"I love to perform," she said. "I just tried to go out there and have fun."

There wasn't much fun being had by Liukin and the other veterans.

Liukin slid out of bounds on floor, almost sat down on her vault and then took an ugly tumble at the end of her uneven bars routine. She bounced forward on her dismount with such force that she did a somersault. That's more mistakes in one night than she normally has in a month.

Bieger fell off the uneven bars, was sloppy on floor and stepped out of bounds on vault. Sacramone landed one of her tumbling passes on floor on her knees, a surprising error on an event where she was a world champion in 2005.

"Thank God it's a two-day competition," Sacramone said. "That way you can redeem yourself and show everybody what you have."

Actually, the only person who really matters is Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator. After Saturday night's final, she'll pick six women and an alternate to go to next month's world championships.

"A few unexpected things happened," Karolyi said. "But altogether we have a pretty good picture of the shape of the girls, where they are."

After one day, at least, Johnson's clearly at the top of her list.

Share This Story