With a world title and an all-around champ in Shawn Johnson, the U.S. has become the team to beat in Beijing
THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS in Stuttgart, Germany, will be remembered as a high-water mark in U.S. women's gymnastics. The audacious Americans not only dethroned defending champ China to establish themselves as the clear favorites for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing but also displayed the sort of camaraderie, charisma and guts that attracts the nation to this dangerous, beautiful sport once a quadrennium. It was just the second world title for the U.S. women—their first came in Anaheim four years ago—who also took three of a possible five individual gold medals, plus two silvers and a bronze.
Making the week even more magical was 15-year-old Shawn Johnson, the national champion from West Des Moines, Iowa, who became only the fourth American woman to win the all-around gold, joining Chellsie Memmel, Shannon Miller and Johnson's idol, Kim Zmeskal. "It feels unreal," says Johnson, a high school sophomore who was competing in her first worlds. "Winning the team final was a dream come true. Just being on the team was an honor. Then to win the individual title...I never saw it coming. I never pictured any of this."
She should have. Since last February, when she joined the senior ranks, the 4'10" Johnson has won all five competitions she's entered. "She has nerves of steel," said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi last Friday. "From the moment she showed up at training camp, I thought this little bubbly girl will be somebody someday. Today's that day."
As significant as Johnson's individual title was, the greater drama was in the battle for team gold. China entered Stuttgart as the favorite, despite fielding a team that had only two returning members from the 2006 lineup that had edged the U.S. The deep American squad had two gymnasts competing in their third world championships, 19-year-old Alicia Sacramone and 17-year-old Nastia Liukin, plus the unflappable Johnson. That experience showed during the qualifying round, when the U.S. easily outscored the Chinese, 245.025 to 241.175, and placed three members—Johnson, Liukin and 17-year-old Shayla Worley—among the top eight.
The Americans were cruising in the finals until the balance beam, when Liukin blew her dismount and Johnson uncharacteristically fell. (Liukin redeemed herself on the apparatus by winning gold in the event on Sunday.) With the U.S. trailing China by .100 and the floor exercise remaining, Sacramone, a sophomore at Brown who has clung to the dream of competing in an Olympics since failing to qualify for the 2004 team, called a team meeting. Wipe those frowns away and enjoy the moment, the captain exhorted. Win the floor exercise and the gold is ours.
Sacramone, the 2005 world champion on floor, was the last U.S. woman up. One mistake would have cost the team the gold. The Winchester, Mass., native put forth a confident, mature, error-free program and the U.S. prevailed by .950. Afterward she sobbed as she hugged her younger teammates. "I've never been so nervous," says Sacramone, who also took home a bronze in the vault. "I was so relieved when I finished because I knew there was nothing more I could have done. That's the best I can do." The same could be said for the U.S. team in Stuttgart.
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A Force Again
Since winning the silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, the U.S. men's gymnastics team has been in a funk. But now it has reestablished itself as a medal contender for Beijing. Though returning empty-handed from Stuttgart, the team—an embarrassing 13th at last year's worlds—quieted critics who predicted that it wouldn't even qualify for the Games when it finished fourth, behind China, Japan and Germany. Jonathan Horton (above), 21, who came in 69th in the all-around at the '06 worlds, was an eye-popping fourth. Kevin Tan, 25, was fourth in the rings and Guillermo Alvarez, 24, took fourth in the floor exercise. "These fourth-place finishes are frustrating," says Alvarez, "but we've shown we're a program to be reckoned with."
WELL-BALANCED In her team's win, Johnson showed poise beyond her 15 years.