It seems like just yesterday we were watching the young, bubbly Johnson triumph on the US Olympic Gymnastics Team while charming the hearts of American fans.
Sunday, after months of training, Shawn Johnson announced her retirement from gymnastics.
Between working with new sponsors and winning the Mirror Ball on Dancing With The Stars, Miss Johnson kept herself quite busy since her star turn in Bejing four years ago.
Then in 2011, she decided she wanted to dominate the Olympic games in 2012. So she began her comeback. She joined the US Women’s Gymnastics Team for the 2011 Pan American Games.
But Sunday, just a couple of weeks before the Olympic trials, Johnson made one of the most difficult decisions in her life to date.
My Facebook Newsfeed was full of friends posting their disbelief and sadness over her “dusting off the chalk.” As a former gymnast, this news came as no shock to me. Let me explain why.
Reason #1: Age
Shawn Johnson was no doubt one of the most talented gymnasts in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, winning three silver medals and one gold medal. At age 16, she was in the prime of her career with strength and maturity in her muscles to power her moves but the youthfulness in her body to keep her healthy.
In 2012, Johnson has matured into a charismatic 20-year old woman. Olympic gymnasts are rarely mature women, even if that woman isn’t old enough to legally drink. The last gymnast who attempted a comeback was Shannon Miller, 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist. The “Magnificent Seven” gymnast attempted to train for the Sydney Olympics in 2004.
The problem with age is your body changes. It outgrows the small, petite figure that is crucial in competitive gymnastics. The natural process for age is to allow the body to develop.
Johnson, while she didn’t wait as long for a comeback as Miller did, she has surely gone through some sort of physical growth and maturity. All gymnasts do when they take an extended break from training.
Reason #2: Competition
Many young girls train for years and compete for months to win their shot to the Olympics. Johnson’s competition has only grown since she performed in Beijing. Girls who once idolized Johnson and her talent are now training to compete for a spot on the same team.
One injury and you fall a step behind the competition. One more birthday means one more girl becomes your competition as you age further from your prime. Gymnastics teams are not stocked full of teammates like football. A few of the most talented individuals will have their chance at fame and glory. There is always a replacement who is willing to fill the spot whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Sports journalist Joan Ryan wrote the nonfiction book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters that portrayed the level of competition in each sport and how age and injuries could leave a gymnast far behind. While the book brought on criticism for being one-sided, it brought forth a new perspective of the sport to fans.
Reason #3: Injury
This was the most obvious reason for Johnson’s retirement.
In January of 2010, Johnson suffered a knee injury in a skiing accident. This is when I knew a comeback for Johnson was not likely to happen. She tore her ACL, MCL, meniscus, and hamstring.
Surgery and training couldn’t bring her back to full strength, which was necessary for her to be considered a candidate for the 2012 Olympic Team. Her knee continued to pull her back and kept her focus away from moving forward and improving her routines.
Any injury that needs reconstructive surgery is a gymnasts nightmare, and when that injury is your ‘powerhouse’ for the most difficult moves in your routine, your career is on the line. It is very rare that a gymnast can fight through such a severe injury, even when she’s had time to heal.
This is why Kerri Strug’s second attempt at vault in the 1996 Olympics is so impressive. After her first vault went a awry and caused her to tear two ligaments in her ankle, she performed her second attempt that won her the gold medal in that event.