Tuesday August 5th, 2008

Doug Johnson gave away the secret less than a minute into the conversation. "Well," Johnson says, "we didn't set out to raise an elite athlete."

Which is precisely how the Johnsons, Doug and Teri of West Des Moines, Iowa, managed to raise a 16-year-old world-champion gymnast who leads as close to a "normal" life as possible despite being one of the world's best in her chosen sport. Yes, Shawn Johnson might be the favorite to win the all-around gold in Beijing, but in West Des Moines, her parents have tried to make her life as ordinary as possible in spite of the intense training, the sponsors and the notion that she just might be the next Mary Lou Retton.

"My parents think it's mandatory that I lead a normal life," Shawn told The Boston Globe earlier this year. "They're just the most normal parents there are. They never pushed me to do anything I didn't want to."

Doug, a carpenter, and Teri, an accounting clerk for the West Des Moines school system, decided to leave Shawn at Valley High, a public school. They also met with Shawn's coach, former Chinese team co-captain Qiao Liang, and agreed that she would train only four hours a day on weekdays instead of the typical six. By designing more efficient training sessions, Qiao allows Shawn, who won the all-around title at the 2007 world championships, to maintain a practice schedule that isn't much more taxing on her time than that of any above-average high school athlete. And if the family wants to go horseback riding, as the Johnsons did a few years ago much to Qiao's chagrin, Shawn can saddle up.

"In any kind of sport, it's easy to get burned out," Doug said. "That's why it's important to us that she do other things."

That includes attending Valley until noon each day before heading to the gym to train. At Valley, teachers and administrators have teamed up to help Johnson juggle school and the life of an elite gymnast. Because of safety concerns, the leased Land Rover she drives -- a gift from a sponsor -- has its own spot in the faculty lot, but other than the occasional meeting with a teacher to catch up after an absence for a meet, that's about all the special treatment Johnson gets. "Shawn and her family have never asked for exceptions," Valley principal Vicky Poole told The Des Moines Register.

And even though they've sunk much of their own money into Shawn's career, Doug and Teri have not asked for a cut of her earnings from sponsorship deals with Coca-Cola, adidas, McDonald's and other companies. Instead, they've banked that money so Shawn, an A student who might someday attend an Ivy League school, can pay for college. "It's a big burden," Doug said, "that we don't have to worry about."

Instead, the Johnsons will worry about Shawn having fun as she prepares for the meet of a lifetime in Beijing. "From the very beginning, we took it that her life growing up was more important than gymnastics," Doug said. "We wanted her to have memories of being a kid."

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