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Original Issue

Olympic Sports

Small Wonder

The latestpint-sized U.S. gymnastics queen, 4'8" Shawn Johnson, served notice with adominating nationals

FOR AT LEAST amoment last Saturday night, Shawn Johnson wasn't concerned about the context ofher achievements. Sure, the 15-year-old from West Des Moines had picked anideal time, a pre-Olympic year, to be crowned the new queen of U.S. gymnastics.And, yes, her 3.45-point margin of victory in the all-around competition at theU.S. nationals in San Jose was enormous, since just 2.20 points separated thesecond- and fifth-place finishers. But even though just two weeks remainedbefore the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, Johnson wasn't thinkingin gymnastics terms. Asked where the overwhelming performance put her among thesport's stars, she replied, "Cloud nine. I'll think about tomorrow when Icome down."

Johnson has beena master of such complex landings since the day in 1992 when, as anine-month-old, she startled her mother, Teri, by appearing in the doorway ofthe family's bathroom, where Teri was fixing her hair. "I washorrified," says Teri, who was sure she had left Shawn in her crib."How did she climb out? How did she get down?" The dismount from cribtop to floor was a good four feet, roughly the height of a regulation balancebeam. Says Shawn, "I think I was born a monkey."

When Shawn wassix, Teri, an account clerk, and her husband, Doug, a self-employed carpenter,enrolled Shawn in a gymnastics club. They had no idea that the owner and coach,Liang Chow, had been a member of the Chinese national team for three years andcould spot a prodigy. "In a week she learned a back handspring," hesays. "I knew this one was special."

In 2004 Chow senta tape of Johnson's performances to Martha Karolyi, the U.S. women's nationalteam coordinator, whom he had never met. Chow attached a note saying of his12-year-old protégée, "This kid can help the U.S. team."

"Either hewas brave or crazy," Karolyi says, "but his gymnast had somespark."

Last summer inSt. Paul, Johnson won the U.S. junior all-around title with a final score of124.10 points, .40 points higher than the score of the senior champ, NastiaLiukin. Johnson also was the only U.S. female gymnast last year at any level todo a double-twisting double-back somersault on the floor exercise. Furthermore,her bars dismount is a rarely seen layout double double.

Though she stilllacks a signature move, the 4'8", 90-pound Johnson has no especially weakevent—she scored above 15 points on all eight of her routines last week and ledthe all-around from the second rotation on. She also seems oblivious topressure. Last month she won five medals (four gold) at the Pan American Gamesin Rio de Janeiro, where spectators not only jeered U.S. gymnasts mercilesslybut also timed their boos and hoots for release moves on bars and for backflipson beam. "Try to scare her," Karolyi says. "You can try all day.She's too smart."

On the upper leftof her leotard Johnson has her first name sequined in Chinese, a reminder thather ultimate goal is next summer's Olympics in Beijing. But this gymnast isdreaming of a routine that won't win her a medal. "I really want to see theGreat Wall," she says. "I can do flips on it."

ONLY AT SI.COMChris Mannix from the FIBA Americas tournament.

A Pair of Familiar Faces

At the U.S. nationals twins Paul and Morgan Hamm, 24,returned to competition for the first time since the 2004 Olympics, at whichPaul won the all-around gold amid controversy that helped drive him from thesport. (An arbitration panel ruled that South Korean bronze medalist Yang TaeYoung had been unfairly docked a decisive .10 points.) Both Hamms entered justtwo events in San Jose, with Paul (above) winning gold on floor. "It feelsgood to have a second wind in your career," says Paul, who earned anaccounting degree at Ohio State during his hiatus. (Morgan's is in exercisescience.) "Athens was both a good note and a bad note. It would be good togo out on a good note." Though Paul wasn't named to the worlds team, bothHamms remain in contention for a berth in Beijing.



HIGH FLIER Johnson showed no weaknesses as she easily won the all-around.