By NANCY ARMOUR, Associated Press
The knee injury that sparked Shawn Johnson's comeback put an end to it, too.
The Olympic gold medalist announced her retirement Sunday, saying repeated setbacks with her left knee made contending for a spot at the London Games impossible, and left her fearful she was putting her long-term health at risk.
"It just little by little gets worse and worse," Johnson told The Associated Press. "My body is to the point where I need time to rest and retire so I can be healthy for the rest of my life. It's hard to wrap my mind around. Gymnastics has been my entire life, and now it's no more."
Her announcement, four days before the start of the U.S. gymnastics championships, brings a melancholy close to a career that took her from Iowa to Hollywood, with a few world titles, a trip to Beijing and an Olympic gold medal sprinkled in between.
"It's just been a fun road with Shawn," USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said.
After winning four medals at the 2008 Games — only Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin and Nastia Liukin left Beijing with more — Johnson took the next two years off. She won "Dancing with the Stars" and, with her bubbly personality and girl-next-door looks, became a bona fide celebrity. She left the door open to a return for a London, but it wasn't until she blew out her knee in a January 2010 ski accident that she realized she still wanted to compete. Her first stop after the doctor's office was her gym, where she and coach Liang Chow began plotting her comeback.
The long layoff would present enough of a challenge, but her knee made it that much more difficult. She had torn the ACL, MCL and meniscus, along with her hamstring, and it never returned to full strength. She made the team for last year's Pan American Games, where she helped the Americans win the team gold. But when she tried to increase her training over the last few months to get ready for London, her knee would not cooperate. She couldn't do the number of repetitions she needed, and there were days she couldn't even work out because the knee would be so swollen.
"That was a hard, hard thing," Chow said of watching Johnson struggle.
Finally, Chow sat Johnson down and said they needed to be realistic. She couldn't put in the training she needed, and she was looking at an entire knee reconstruction if she kept going.
"It's been a really hard decision. How can you tell yourself, 'No, I think it's time to say it's finally done?'" said Johnson, 20. "I'd like to be 30 and have kids and run around with them. It became more about my future life than this future one moment. I'm looking at the bigger picture of things."
But it still hurts.
"It's weird, for the first time in my career I came up short. But I feel like I succeeded as well," said Johnson, who listed making the Pan Am team after the knee injury as one of her proudest accomplishments. "It almost came too easy the first time. It was a humbling experience this time around."
Johnson was once billed as "the next Mary Lou," a fresh-faced kid from West Des Moines, Iowa, who could jump and dream.
Famous is the story of Chow trying to get Johnson her first invitation to a national team training camp. Unsolicited, he sent national team coordinator Martha Karolyi a highlight tape and promised that "this kid will help the U.S. team."
Based on the pure moxie of the move, Karolyi couldn't help but take a look. Chow turned out to be right.
Along with her gold on balance beam in Beijing, Johnson won silvers in the all-around, team competition and floor exercise. Her all-around title at the 2007 world championships was at the time the fourth by a U.S. woman, and she also led the Americans to their third team title and took gold on the floor exercise. Shannon Miller is the only other American to win three golds at a single world championships.
Her performance at worlds was the exclamation point on a winning streak the likes of which is rarely seen in gymnastics. Johnson won every event she entered in 2007, her first as a senior, establishing herself as one of the poster kids for the Beijing Games. It also set up a compelling, yet friendly, rivalry with Liukin.
"Shawn will always hold a special place in gymnastics and my heart," Karolyi said. "She always showed the joy of doing gymnastics."