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What It Takes to Be an Olympic Athlete

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Shawn Johnson, Gymnast

Fourteen-year-old Shawn Johnson started taking gymnastics lessons when she was 3 years old.

"When I was little, I just did it because I loved it," Johnson said. "When I started getting to the higher levels, I started thinking about making the elite. I put in more hours and learned more skills."

Johnson was named to the U.S. Junior National team in August 2005 and now she has her eyes set on Olympic Gold in the Beijing Summer Games in 2008.

The eighth-grader in West Des Moines, Iowa, attends a full day of school before heading to the gym for four-hour workouts. Johnson spends five hours in the gym on Saturdays and takes Sundays off.

Practice consists of at least 30 minutes of conditioning, stretching (she usually arrives a half an hour early for additional stretching) and endurance training, and about 50 minutes on each event. Johnson will complete extra tricks at the end of a routine during practice, and she runs to build endurance.

Her strength training relies on her own body weight and exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, squat jumps, and pull-ups. For exercises like sit-ups, she usually does as many reps as she can of each exercise in one minute. Usually she does about 30 pull-ups, although she revealed that she's done up to 100 at one time.

"We're not allowed to use weights," Johnson said. "It doesn't give gymnasts the right proportion."

Johnson says she pays attention to her diet to be a healthier gymnast, but she's not obsessive over it. Between school and practice she grabs a snack, usually some sort of protein or fruit, to prepare her body for the intense workout. During practices, she usually takes a 10-minute break and noshes on some fruit; her favorite is strawberries.

Johnson's favorite event is the 4-inch-wide balance beam that sits 4 feet off the ground. She is working on a sequence of two back-handsprings followed by a back layout full twist on the apparatus. Although new tricks still scare her even at this level, she's learned to manage her fears and trust her coaches.

"They're always telling me they wouldn't let me do anything if I wasn't ready or if I would get hurt," Johnson said. "They always know when I'm ready."

Right now, Johnson is using the Winter Olympics in Turin as inspiration for her own dreams of competing in 2008.

"I love the speed skating, ice skating, and skiing," Johnson said. "It's actually really scary that the next Olympics is the one I'm going for, but it pumps me up to want to work harder to get there."

Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, February 2006.

 

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