Reporting Sara Pelissero
The 2011 Visa Championships roll into town in August but before the competition heats up, a certain celebrity Olympian is making sure there’s plenty of local support.
Shawn Johnson, a 2008 Olympic gold and silver medalist and “Dancing with the Stars” champion, stopped by the Mall of America last week to get fans fired up to see some of the best gymnasts in the nation compete next month — and to show people, she might have taken a break, but she’s back. And in a big way.
Before her trip to the mall, she was nice enough to take some time out of her busy training schedule to talk with fellow web producer Karna Bergstrom about getting back into Olympic shape, that little “Dancing with the Stars” show and what’s next.
Q: What’s it like for you to meet your fans at events like the one you’ll be participating in at the Mall of America?
A: It can be a little overwhelming when there’s like thousands of people there and you’re like, ‘why are they there?’ and they’re like, ‘it’s for you.’ It really cool, though, because it’s just showing that we’re able to put our sport on the map and it’s always great to have fans who support all of your hard work.
Q: Now, you’re from Iowa — our Midwestern neighbor. How important are your Midwestern roots?
A: Oh gosh, that’s like the most important thing to me, coming from Iowa and the Midwest. I tell people Midwesterners are the nicest people. If you’re from the Midwest, you’re proud to represent the Midwest, and be a part of it. They’ve always welcomed me and been very supportive of me and my family — I feel like no matter what I do, they’re always proud of me there. It means a lot to me, so I feel proud to represent it.
Q: Do more people know you from participating in the Olympics or from “Dancing with the Stars?”
A: I think I’m more known for Dancing with the Stars now than anything. I see someone on the street and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re from Dancing with the Stars’ and I’m like, ‘No, I’m from the Olympics.’
Q: What would you say is your top accomplishment so far? Winning “Dancing with the Stars,” winning the World Women’s Gymnastics Championships or winning a gold medal at the Olympics?
A: I don’t think it’s comparable because the Olympics got me to ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and the World Championships got me to the Olympics. I would say the Olympics mean the most but “Dancing with the Stars” was so much fun and was quite the honor.
Q: Speaking of “Dancing with the Stars,” what was it like being immersed in that Hollywood lifestyle in Los Angeles?
A: It was kind of a culture shock but I loved it. I moved out there for like five months and had a blast but I couldn’t wait to get home because I missed my family and all the Midwest people. I missed all the green grass.
Q: Do you think being on “Dancing with the Stars” open up a new fan base for you?
A: Definitely, I think ‘Dancing with the Stars’ kind of gave me an opportunity to kind of share my story. The people who watched ‘Dancing with the Stars’ but never watched gymnastics before, it kind of got them interested and maybe watching this time around or following and getting their daughters enrolled. I think it brought in a lot bigger audience and a lot more fan support, which is what we strive for.
Q: So after “Dancing with the Stars,” what made you decide to get back into gymnastic training?
A: Actually after 2008, I said I was done. I wanted to just be out of the sport and go to college and high school and kind of have that life, so I didn’t plan on coming back. After ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ I went on a skiing trip and took a bad fall. I had to get full reconstructive surgery on my knee after an ACL tear and I just remember after falling and finding out I needed surgery, the very first thing that came to my head was, ‘you know, what if I can never do gymnastics again.’ It was kind of like a reality check that I knew I’d miss it so I gave it one last shot and said, ‘you know what, you’re going to regret not even trying so you might as well try it one more time.’
Q: So really, that reality check is what made you realize how much you’d miss gymnastics?
A: When I first found out I had to have surgery — normally that’s a career-ending surgery for anybody — I just remember thinking what if I just ruined my gymnastics career for good and I don’t even have a choice anymore. It kind of motivated me to get back in the gym and work harder to get back in shape, get healthy and possibly give it a shot for London.
Q: So where are you training now?
A: I’m training in Des Moines, Iowa.
Q: How is that going? Are you putting in more hours than you did the last time you trained for the Olympics?
A: I’m definitely getting more hours in now than I ever have only because I’m trying to get myself back in shape and back into the form I was in in Beijing. I’m doing it a little bit different because I don’t have school to go to and I’m focusing my entire time around my practice, so I’m making it a little easier than four really intense hours a day, which was the 24 hours (a week I previously did). So it’s different, and I have to structure a little different because of my age, my body and my knee. I’m taking it one day at a time.
Q: You’re only 19. But in the gymnastics world that can be considered on the older side of the sport. Is training more difficult now that you’re a little bit older?
A: I can definitely feel it. It’s definitely a lot harder than it was when I was 16. I’ve grown up and matured and I’m a different body style and I took time off and I don’t have as much energy as those 14-, 15-, 16-year-old girls running around the gym. It’s definitely different. I have to learn different techniques and styles. I’ve grown in height and I’ve changed. It’s a whole new world.
Q: You’ve said before that you are planning on going to college. Is that still your plan?
A: Definitely. College is a plan for me. I feel like I couldn’t even finish high school like I wanted. I couldn’t finish my junior and senior years in public school because of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and the Olympics, and I just know that I have to have that college life and that college experience. So as soon as I’m done with the Olympics, after the promotional things and fun opportunities, I definitely want to put everything aside and go to college.
Q: What about the Visa Championships are you most looking forward to?
A: I love the Visa Nationals, only because it’s the biggest competition the U.S. has. It’s where the top of the top U.S. gymnasts come and get to compete together. The thing that’s cool is the girls I’m competing with are also my teammates. We go out to Houston to train every four weeks and we’re all basically like a family. So it’s a lot of fun to watch. We have so many people who come out to watch us. It’s kind of like a huge party but everyone takes it very seriously. It’s great to be on your home turf and have your friends and family and local supporters there for you.
Q: Is that hard at all competing against your teammates? Or is it an advantage because you can pinpoint their weaknesses?
A: It’s kind of both. I love being able to compete with them because we are family, like sisters, so we support each other and cheer each other on. It’s a really friendly competition that way. But it’s definitely harder because I think we’re each other’s top competitors so it makes the meet that much more intense. We train together and we’re like, ‘she beat me in training but I’m going to try to beat her in competition.’ It’s fun.
Q: You’ve got your sights on the 2012 Olympics. How do you feel about that goal? Is it attainable?
A: I don’t know yet. I do feel like if I work hard enough that talent and strength is still there from Beijing but you never know. You don’t know who is going to be showing up next year and being a part of the whole 2012 games. But I feel like I’m on the right track and if I just keep pushing at it and keep the pace going, I might have another shot.
The 2011 Visa Championships takes place from Aug. 17-20 at the Xcel Energy Center and the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul. Tickets are on sale now. For more information and a schedule of events, click here.