By Brian Cazeneuve
June 04, 2012

In the accelerated shelf life of gymnastics, a 20-year-old may well be living on bonus time, a value-added second wind often guided by gumption and plied on gimpy knees. Shawn Johnson was not going to accomplish anything she hadn't already done.

She won four Olympic medals, including gold on the balance beam in Beijing, and was the world all-around champ in 2007. For Johnson, her stubborn attempt to get back to an Olympic Games two years after suffering a debilitating ski injury wasn't a matter of medals or money. No, when you're a Dancing With the Stars champion, you've hopped the restrictive borders of your sport and jumped into the lucrative mainstream. For Johnson, the comeback attempt she finally abandoned this week was about pursuing the sport, and ultimately leaving it, on her own terms.

"This is a really hard moment," Johnson said Sunday. "I still have the heart, drive and desire to compete. Unfortunately, my road has been cut a little short. ... It's been a constant fight. It came down to there wasn't enough time left to heal. I couldn't push myself any further. My knee physically wouldn't let me do any more."

Johnson made headlines even away from the gym. In 2009, the same year she won Dancing With the Stars, Forbes magazine declared her the country's most popular sports figure -- even though she wasn't competing. In January 2010, Johnson tore her ACL while she was skiing and underwent reconstructive surgery the following month. Unable to use her legs and work off the calories from the aerobic bursts her sport required, Johnson put on 25 pounds and spoke openly about the hurtful way blogs and tabloids poked fun at her weight.

Johnson's announcement came four days before the U.S. national championships in St. Louis and four weeks before the U.S. Olympic trials in San Jose. A three-person panel will name the five-woman Olympic team hours after the trials end July 1. Johnson's knee injury had already limited her training on her stronger events. She abandoned the idea of being an all-around gymnast who would need to tumble and compete on the vault.

Still, she soldiered on with the hopes of being a specialist on the team that will be favored to win gold in London. At the world championships in Tokyo last year, a new crop of U.S. gymnasts, including Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman, led a U.S. team to victory by more than four points over silver-medalist Russia, a significant margin in a sport judged by fractions.

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Johnson didn't make the world team but instead won two medals -- gold in the team competition and silver on the uneven bars -- at the less prestigious Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. U.S. program coordinator Martha Karolyi spoke glowingly about Johnson's dedication to her sport.

"It is a true champion who wins the race the first time and then is willing to take baby steps to join the race the second time," she said.

This was, after all, the same girl who once spooked her mother by climbing out of her crib and prancing around the floor before her first birthday.

In an odd way, Johnson saw the chalked writing on the beam when Gabby Douglas, a new girl on the national team, began emerging as a star at Chow's gym, her longtime training site in Des Moines. With her boundless energy and chatty personality, Douglas, at 15 the youngest competitor from any nation at the Tokyo worlds, was like a younger Johnson, one who wasn't yet fighting off accumulated aches and pains.

"I never had a teammate at Chow's at that level," she said of the gym owned by Beijing-born Liang Chow. "I always had Chow's to myself. We're like dad and daughter. Now I see Gabby, and I'm like a proud mom"

Johnson's comeback ultimately fell short because of the injury, the reduction of the Olympic roster this year from six to five and the astounding depth of the U.S. women's program. Chellsie Memmel, the world all-around champ in 2005, had her petition to nationals rejected after struggling with injuries, herself, for the past few years. Among the team's veteran corps, Nastia Liukin, Rebecca Bross, Alicia Sacramone and Bridget Sloan are fighting the obstacles of age, health and younger, surging teammates as they try to get to London.

Johnson still has sponsors, a new book, a future in college and on television and an association with her sport that will serve her well. Still, even after a matter of days, the solitary void is already unmistakable.

"It's weird not to have to get up and go to practice," she said.

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