Johnson waltzes to future


Shawn Johnson can’t stop smiling. She looks into the eyes of her dancing partner, Mark Ballas, the two nod at each other and then the music starts.

We can’t tell you the music. It’s a secret until Johnson and Ballas compete at 8 tonight on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”

Johnson, 17, the bubbly gymnast from West Des Moines, Iowa, who won Olympic gold and silver medals in Beijing last summer, is the youngest star ever chosen to participate on the show that has always prominently featured athletes in its lineup. Johnson’s partner, for example, won the mirror ball trophy with former figure skating gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi.


Johnson and her mother, Teri, have relocated to Los Angeles for as long as Johnson stays on the show. While Johnson is testing her waltzing skills in her three-inch heels, Teri whispers, “Shawn says she’s never going back to Des Moines.”

It’s as if Johnson has packed away her Olympic medals and memories on a back shelf in a locked closet. Her Beijing experience was marked first by disappointment and then with subdued relief. Johnson had been the favorite to win the individual all-around medal and her U.S. team had been co-favorites with China to win gold.

Instead, Johnson’s teammate Nastia Liukin won the all-around gold while a teary-eyed Johnson took second. Her team finished second to China and Johnson also was second in floor exercise, in which she had been the defending world champion. Her gold came on the last night of the competition, on balance beam.

“I haven’t watched the Olympics,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if I will. It was all just . . . hard.”

Before the “hard,” there was a pause, a moment where her happy mask melted.

Since the Olympics, Johnson has participated in a gymnastics tour, made appearances at Super Bowl parties, spoken at the Democratic National Convention, vacationed in Beaver Creek, Colo., learned to snowboard and been made up and dressed up and twisted and twirled in preparation for this television turn. What she hasn’t done is gone back to work at her Iowa gym, where she had spent the better part of 10 years with her gymnastics coach Liang Chow.

And for now that isn’t in the plans. Johnson is taking some online classes with the hopes she will be able to graduate with her high school class next year.

Teri sits in a corner of a strip mall dance studio on Sunset Boulevard watching her daughter twirl on the finger of Ballas and says she misses the family pets fiercely. Whether competitive gymnastics will return to Johnson’s schedule seems uncertain at best.

Her most immediate goals are learning how to perform in heels instead of bare feet and how to wiggle her hips.

“It’s all different from what I was taught in gymnastics,” Johnson said. “I have to learn to let go and just be emotional.”

Then Johnson sneaks a look at Ballas. “You know,” she said to him, “in gymnastics I was known for being a bad dancer.” Ballas feigns shock, then says, “We’ll fix that.”



Wanting to show her range

In video clip, Shawn Johnson talks about why she chose to be one of the participants on “Dancing With the Stars.”