Brandy Johnson's Leotard was a study in chutzpah. The aqua-and-black number, trimmed with silver sequins (there were also sparkles on her shiny blonde ponytail), was clearly a star's ensemble. One could almost hear the judges at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships saying with a sniff, "If you wear a costume like that, you had better back it up with a real performance."
She did just that, right from her first event last Saturday night at the Met Center in Minneapolis. Johnson writhed and leaped through her floor exercise to Donna Summer's jazzy Hot Stuff, completing three difficult tumbling passes, including a round off, whip whip, flip flop and double-back that looked pretty much like it sounds. Difficult. The judges gave her a score of 9.7 for the exercise, a full .2 better than anyone else's mark. In the end, Johnson took the all-around title going away, winning by almost two points. "Once she got rolling there was nothing that could stop her," said her coach, Kevin Brown. For good measure, on Sunday she won three of the four individual events.
Johnson, 16, who has been the best gymnast in the U.S. for almost a year, now has the titles to prove it. Unfortunately, being the country's top gymnast the year after the Olympics is a little like putting on a terrific fireworks display on the fifth of July.
Still, it was a dominant performance for Johnson and a thrill for her mother, Kathy, who watched from the stands at the Met. Brandy's father, Jerry, a building contractor, had stayed home in Altamonte Springs, Fla. "He gets too nervous watching her compete live," Kathy explained.
The question is: How many nerve-racking meets lie ahead for good old dad? Johnson plans to stay in the sport for at least three more years, but it won't be easy.
"Historically, the girls who are in this meet the year after the Games are not on our next Olympic team," says Mike Jacki, executive director or the U.S. Gymnastics Federation (USGF). "The sport is directed toward smaller, younger girls, and it's hard for a quote-unquote older woman to compete. But I'll be excited and pleased if that doesn't happen this time."
Johnson competed in the 1988 Olympics, but she was a virtual unknown. Although she came in 10th in the all-around—the highest finish for a U.S. gymnast, man or woman—in Seoul she was overshadowed by teammate Phoebe Mills, then 15, who won a bronze in the balance beam. But Johnson started this year by winning the all-around title at three international competitions. defeating top Eastern bloc performers at each meet.
"Brandy is intelligent, prompt in action and backed with a totally unusual raw power, an explosiveness that very much reminds me of Mary Lou [Retton]," says Bela Karolyi, who coached Johnson during the '88 Olympics and was Retton's coach for the '84 Games. "And she has the same body type—short, stocky, but excellent quality of muscle."
The five-year search for a new Mary Lou shows just how tough it is to hang on in this game. The last pixie touted as the successor to Retton, the 1984 gold medalist, was Kristie Phillips. But the rubber-jointed Phillips, who is just a year older than Johnson, was done in by the growth spurts and weight gains of puberty and failed to make the '88 Olympic team. Next in line was Mills, but she quit the sport last month, saying she was burned out.
Meanwhile, Johnson is thriving. One thing that should make her journey toward Barcelona easier is a new USGF program. Team '92, which gives money to the top-ranked athletes in the sport. Johnson's win last week assured her of at least $16,000 over the next year. All in all, the USGF plans to dole out more than a million dollars in the next four years in hopes of encouraging the country's best gymnasts to stay in training longer.
Tim Ryan, the 18-year-old all-around champion in Minneapolis, was the surprise winner of the men's title. He held off favored Lance Ringnald by a mere .22 to win the title on Saturday afternoon. Ryan, the youngest U.S. men's champion since Bart Conner won in 1975 at the age of 17, is a sophomore at Stanford and plans to major in engineering. "I'm not a competition-oriented person," says the soft-spoken Ryan. "Competition makes me nervous, but when you've finished that last event, the feeling is really worth all the work you do." Competition also makes his mother, Joanne, edgy; like Johnson's father, she stayed home, in Coopersburg, Pa. "She almost gets sick, she gets so nervous." Ryan says.
The U.S. men's team is not going to make many of the Eastern bloc teams nervous; this is clearly a rebuilding period for the Americans. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the current crop of U.S. gymnasts is that they are young—seven of the top 12 finishers are under 21. At the world championships in Stuttgart, West Germany, next October, the U.S. men "are going to have their work cut out for them." says Jacki. "I'm not planning on being competitive with world-class athletes by October," says Ryan.
Prospects are better on the women's side. "Brandy has a good chance to medal in several events at the worlds and could place very high in the all-around," says Jacki. "If she has a great worlds, it could give her great recognition and help her stay with it."
How long Johnson lasts in the sport may depend on what Karolyi calls "the changes." There are signs of encroaching maturity—she has an air more reminiscent of Grace Kelly than of bubbly Mary Lou. Ask Brandy about her boyfriend, 23-year-old Bill Scharpf, and she lights up. He performs in a water ski show at Sea World in Orlando, Fla. "He's awesome," she says, "He can water-ski barefoot and backwards."
Physically, Johnson might be able to weather the changes in the next three years. She is 4'11", 92 pounds, and has grown only slightly since the Games. She comes from diminutive stock—her mother is just 5'4", her father 5'8". And if people are like puppies—whose paws reveal the size they will reach as adults—then Johnson will remain small. She has tiny hands and size 2 feet. ("The only kind of prom shoes I can find have, like. Mickey Mouse on them." she says.)
Johnson isn't worried about her body lurching out of control. "That is all mind over matter," she says and smiles. "I plan to grow a few inches after I quit gymnastics."
Until then she's going to have to grow accustomed to the spotlight. Last Saturday night after the all-around awards ceremony, she got a glimpse of the price of celebrity. A group of adoring preteen girls screeched "Brandy! Brandy!" as they leaned over the rails of the Met Center, begging for her autograph. Johnson, her sequins flashing, looked up at a nearby USGF official and said softly. "Save me."