Thursday, Jul. 24, 2008

7. Shawn Johnson

United States

At 16, she is perhaps the best gymnast in the world — a compact, powerful package who is just as at home on the beam and bars as she is in the vault and floor events. "She doesn't know how good she is," says former Olympian Shannon Miller. Shawn Johnson has an easy smile and confidence and rarely betrays the nervousness she says she feels at every competition. That anxiety gets expressed only through her poetry, which she scribbles in a journal that's always with her or which she texts on her cell phone. Through words, she reveals a Shawn not often seen by her competitors — one with a very human awareness of her limitations and a self-doubt about her emotional and physical strength that belies her age:

You remember the struggles and pain you had
When all the good had turned to bad
When behind the scenes you crumbled and prayed
For it all to simply just go away
But when the pressure builds and tears you apart
How are you able to not depart
How are you able to still carry a smile
When everything inside is in a pile

These lines, from a poem called Champion, were written during a stay at the national training center in March. "I feel like I have so much to say that I don't know where to start," she says of her creative urges. Much of the tension she describes is generated from within, from responsibilities she feels to her parents and coach, Liang Qiao (known as Chow), a Beijing native and former Chinese gymnastics champion. "I want to show everyone in their country their hard work through me," she says, referring to Chow's coaching skills. She will probably show her country too.