Friday, August 22, 2008

Shawn Johnson: Gamer

"Gamer", my highest compliment, bestowed on a mentally tough and extremely deserving athlete:

Gold Medalist
Shawn Johnson

Ms. Johnson stood up under a lot of pressure - both before and during the Olympic Games - including the pressure of being a Gold Medal favorite who, during these Olympic Games, had won 3 Silver Medals and no Gold Medals. Ms. Johnson nevertheless came through with an excellent performance - like the Champion she is, and like the champion she would have continued to be, regardless of any judges scores. Bravo. Bravissimo.

WSJ Opinion Journal Online:
August 20, 2008; Page A18

The 4-feet-9-inch, 16-year-old bundle of power named Shawn Johnson is due back in class next week at West Des Moines Valley High School. But before it's time to start junior year, she deserves a few moments to savor her Olympic gold medal in the gymnastics balance beam. Her Tuesday victory was her first of the Beijing Games, but for more than a week she has been an inspiring example of guts and grace.

As reigning world champion, Ms. Johnson was a gold-medal favorite going into the Games. But despite her own performance in the team competition, the U.S. lost the gold to China when her teammates struggled. Ms. Johnson's reaction was to remind her most distraught comrade that it was Ms. Johnson who had made costly mistakes in a tournament last year.

When American Nastia Liukin beat her in the all-around competition, she smiled and told NBC's Bob Costas how happy she was for Ms. Liukin, her Olympic village roommate. A near-miss in the floor exercise elicited more goodwill. "I would never trade one of my silvers for gold," she told ESPN. "What I went through to get them is very special to me and really touched my heart."

Of course she still wanted gold, and it was fitting that her last shot would come on the balance beam, an event so difficult and unforgiving that many people can't even stand to watch it, never mind try to pull off backward somersaults atop a four-inch sliver of wood. Ms. Johnson's score of 16.225 gave her the win and triggered a bouncing, tearful celebration. Few medal winners in Beijing were more deserving.
From an Aug 7 MSNBC story:
Shawn has the express permission of her coach, Liang Chow, to make mistakes.

And, in one of those great twists, it's precisely because she feels the freedom to make mistakes that she rarely makes big ones.

Before the U.S. Olympic Trials, in June in Philadelphia, for instance, Chow told Shawn, as her mother, Teri recalled, just two things:

Perform like a champion.

And don't be afraid to make a mistake.

After which Shawn went out and, just as she did at the 2007 world championships in the individual all-around, came out on top -- finishing with the best overall score at the 2008 U.S. Trials.

"I remember him telling me that," said Shawn, who now wears a team silver medal from these Games. "It is almost just a relief. You're just trying to please the person who has taught you eveyrthing; you want to show them that you can be just as perfect as they've trained you to be. You're afraid to make mistakes. You're afraid to let them down -- even though you wouldn't.

"For him to have told me that, that as long as I went out there and did my best and he knew I had done my best, no matter what happened, he would have been happy -- it made me have a lot more confidence in myself because I knew if I went out there and made mistakes it wouldn't be the end of the world."

"I think that is so helpful to her, that he gives her permission to be imperfect, to be human," Shawn's mother, Teri Johnson, said, adding, "It's as simple as, 'Go do your best.' And, truthfully, that's all anybody can do."

In high-level sport, the mental edge often can -- and does -- make the difference.

Only the bounds of human ingenuity limit the ways in which coaches, trainers and others in the camp of an elite athlete seek that edge.

Chow's way is refreshingly simple.

It is based, he says, on a humanistic approach to the sport and to his athletes.

It is based, he says, on the idea of love.
"In competition," Chow said of Shawn, "she knows I care about her seeking perfection. I care about how she hits her routines beautifully. But there is no pressure if she is making mistakes, from me or Li [his wife].

"We are just there to help prepare her so she can perform beautiful routines. She's a human being -- we have to realize that."

It is in the vault, in particular, that this approach is most easily seen for those who don't have a technical eye for gymnastics.

Shawn performs an extraordinarily difficult vault called a Yurchenko 2 1/2; she is the only American woman who even attempts it. Instead of sticking the landing, it's not uncommon to see her take a little step.

On purpose.

Better, Chow reasons, that Shawn should give in and allow that small step, if she feels she needs to, than obsess over the perfection of sticking it. [Greg's note: this is a coach trusting his athlete - as opposed to being a control freak coach]

"She absolutely is allowed to make some mistakes," he said, adding, "She has a great personality ... she enjoys herself on the floor -- and in the gym, also. I can't say enough words, enough great things, about this kid. She is a loving person and very respectful.

"She is the world champion, the all-around champion. She is a huge star. But she is also like a normal kid, helping the younger kids, moving the mats, just like all the little things the other kids are doing. There are no exceptions for her.

"I'm very proud of what she does on the floor," he said. "But I am also very proud of her for who she is, as a real person."
Good stuff.

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