Team USA looking to fill void left by Johnson
ST. LOUIS -- When Gabrielle Douglas — a face of the post-Shawn Johnson era for US women's gymnastics — spoke about the future Friday night, she was all excitement, innocence and youth.
Douglas, 16, carries lessons learned from training with the retired four-time Olympic medalist at Chow's Gymnastics in West Des Moines, Iowa: Fight. Never give up. Don't perform a routine with anything less than your best effort, because strong habits produce elite results.
Yes, Johnson's retirement Sunday marked an era's end for many who shared the sport with her. But it also produced another effect: Opportunity for young gymnasts such as Douglas and other athletes at the Visa Championships considered to be on the bubble for an Olympics bid.
No one outside of Jordyn Wieber, 16, competing at Chaifetz Arena this weekend is thought to be a safe pick to book a trip to London. Earlier this year, even Johnson was considered somewhat of a long shot to clinch her second consecutive Olympics berth. She was dealing with lingering issues with a torn left ACL sustained during a skiing accident in January 2010.
Still, she was a tested veteran, a known winner. Johnson's absence at the US gymnastics national championships means one less seasoned competitor between athletes like Douglas and a dream.
"I think Shawn's legacy … showed the power of the sport," said Douglas, who finished the first of two sessions in the women's competition at the Visa Championships on Friday tied for the top spot with Wieber with a score of 60.65.
"She was so powerful, which is a great thing. She brought out the dynamic in the gymnastics."
Johnson's command is something Douglas and others are trying to replicate this month. Most of Johnson's former peers agree she impacted the sport in a meaningful way, as evidenced by her decorated resume.
Johnson earned three silver (team, floor and all-around) and one gold medal (balance beam) at the Beijing Games. Earlier, she won three gold medals (team, floor and all-around) at the 2007 World Championships. She became a model of consistency and grace for women's gymnastics in the United States since earning three first-place finishes at the 2007 Visa Championships (floor, balance beam and all-around) in her first year of senior competition.
But new faces emerge, old ones leave and opportunity is part of the evolution.
"When people drop out of the competition, it's just one step closer for others to try to be closer to making the team," said Alicia Sacramone, a member of the 2008 Olympics team that won a silver medal.
"I was sad to see her go. She was one of my teammates back in '08. But if she's happy, I'm happy for her. I think she made the right decision for her."
The decision could affect a number of hopefuls seeking to earn a spot on the five-member Olympics team. The top eight athletes in the all-around competition here will advance to the trials June 29 and July 1 in San Jose, Calif., along with additional Visa Championships participants chosen by a selection committee "based on their ability to be competitive for a slot on the 2012 Olympic team."
Here are some gymnasts in St. Louis worth a closer look with Johnson out of contention:
* Douglas earned a bronze medal on the uneven bars at the 2011 Visa Championships. Since age 7, the Virginia Beach, Va., native has worked toward appearing in the Olympics. Could Johnson's retirement allow Douglas to make her first Games?
* Rebecca Bross, 18, earned a silver medal in the 2009 World Championships all-around competition and a bronze medal in the 2010 World Championships all-around. The Ann Arbor, Mich., native dislocated her right kneecap at the 2011 Visa Championships. She finished 20th with a score of 28.75 on Friday. Can she recover?
* Aly Raisman, 18, was a member of the team that won a gold medal at the 2011 World Championships. The Needham, Mass., native also captured a bronze medal in the floor exercise at the same world event. She finished third with a score of 60.20 on Friday. Will she reach her first Olympics?
* Nastia Liukin, 22, was a winner of five medals at the Beijing Games, including a gold in the all-around competition. Before appearing in the US Classic in late May, the Parker, Texas, native last competed in 2009. She finished 21st with a score of 28.25 on Friday. Can she become the first defending Olympics all-around champion to return to the Games since Nadia Comaneci in 1980?
* Sacramone, 24, has persevered. The Winchester, Mass., native is trying to rebound from a torn right Achilles tendon sustained while training for the 2011 World Championships. She finished 19th with a score of 30.65 on Friday. Where will her comeback lead?
"I'm not sure it has affected us too much," Liukin said of Johnson's retirement. "I think everyone has their own goals in mind, and everybody's on a little bit of a different path. She had an amazing journey and an amazing career, and she should be proud of so many things that she has done with her life and her career.
"I think that it just proves it's not an easy sport. No matter what your accomplishments have been in the past, you can't just snap your fingers and be competing at a national championship. It's tough. It's very tough. But if you have that desire and you have that drive, then anything is possible."