When Shawn Johnson fell on her Amanar vault at the American Cup March 1, so too did the suffocating expectations that she would continue a winning streak that had begun the year before at the same meet. After grabbing the all-around and three event titles at the 2007 American Cup, Johnson went on quite a tear. The sport's newest star racked up 10 gold medals at the Pan American Games (four), U.S. championships (three) and world championships (three) combined. She was only 15.
Yet with that one big mistake on her first event at the American Cup, Johnson became human again. "Actually, she seems to have had a huge load lifted," Teri Johnson, Shawn's mother, told IG. "She seems much more light-hearted and back to the old Shawn. I think it's really great to have some of the spotlight dimmed for a while."
Shawn JohnsonA similar situation emerged in 2004, when Carly Patterson began the year by winning the all-around and every event at the American Cup. After tying for first with Courtney Kupets at the U.S. National Championships later that season, the spotlight's glare was at least shared. But when Patterson fell off beam (both days) and placed third at the U.S. Olympic Trials, she could finally relax and focus on Athens.
"[Carly] felt like trials was a blessing in disguise because she was on a winning streak, as well, and that it would have to come to an end," says Natalie Patterson, Carly's mother. "It was better to end at trials, which gave her that much more motivation to come back and prove what she was capable of doing. People talk when things like this happen. They write you off as the pressure got to her. This only gave Carly a stronger vengeance to come back and prove herself."
Fueled by a deeper resolve, Patterson won the 2004 Olympics over then-world champion and main challenger Svetlana Khorkina.
Fast-forward to the present and we've got Johnson pitted against Nastia Liukin much the same as Patterson battled Khorkina. That Johnson and Liukin will likely be teammates in Beijing adds an interesting twist, for at least one of them will not win the all-around gold. (Unlike at world championships, ties are broken at Olympics.)
Nastia Liukin From late 2006, when she injured her ankle, Liukin had something to prove. An all-arounder at heart, she had no choice but to play a supporting role to Johnson's incredible senior debut last year.
Now Johnson has something to prove as well. "Personally, I think this is the best thing that could have happened for her," Teri says of her daughter's runner-up finish at the American Cup. "Don't get me wrong. I never want for her to 'lose,' but I do think she will be hungrier now. I've always told her that knowing how to lose is as important as knowing how to win. You have to experience one in order to fully appreciate the other."
It's too early to predict much about the Olympics in Beijing, although it is not out of the question that Johnson and Liukin could claim the top two all-around spots in either order. The American Cup was little more than a test for both gymnasts. "I'm not, personally, in top shape like I will be in a few months, and this is not the most important meet," Johnson said after the meet. "I came here for experience and to get all my new skills out there."
Said Liukin: "Don't get me wrong, I did not have the best competition of my life ... I can improve so much."
As Johnson and Liukin prepare for their first Olympics, each probably realizes only her best will beat the other. Whether that creates added pressure will show in the coming months. But if Johnson and Liukin have indeed separated themselves from the pack, at least in the U.S., they have only each other to thank.
For now, the pressure is off Johnson. And as her mother said, it's probably the best thing that could have happened to her.