LONDON -- Shawn Johnson's fame has grown exponentially at least twice -- after she won four gymnastics medals in Beijing in 2008 (a gold in the balance beam and three silvers), and then to an entire different stratosphere a year later when she was the Season 8 champion on "Dancing With The Stars.''
Her popularity is easily understood. Even after a long day of interviews and appearances on behalf of sponsors including Procter and Gamble, Johnson couldn't have been more gracious during a conversation Wednesday night at the P&G House, an impossibly stylish and cool place for US athletes and their families to relax out of the public eye during the Olympics.
Here is some of what Johnson had to say, which includes high praise for Needham's Aly Raisman.
1. You have a unique perspective on the current Olympic team. For a time, you had serious thoughts of being one of them until your knee injury led you to retire again in June. I've heard you described as the big sister to the girls who are competing here, someone they go to for advice, insight, or maybe even sympathy. Has that been an easy adjustment, or is it a little bit surreal?
Johnson "Oh, it definitely has been surreal at times, but I like that sister role. I'm close to them because I was training with them for a while and I still feel very connected, especially sitting in the stands watching them compete. I know everything about them. I watch them practice, the ups and downs. I've been through it and I can help them and tell them I know what they're going through. Especially Jordyn [Wieber, the world champion who was devastated when she didn't make the women's individual all-around]. I sent her a message just telling her to be strong and to hang in there."
2. Knowing them like you do, you must be able to read their facial expressions and body language and know exactly what they are thinking.
Johnson: "Oh, yeah, totally. I definitely see things that other people don't. Anybody that trains together, you know each other inside and out, especially with Gabby [Douglas], I know her so well, the way she walks, the way she warms up. I know whether it's going to be a good one or not. I do think I have a good sense for what we'll see [from Douglas and Aly Raisman Thursday], but in our sport, you never know. But both Aly and Gabby are extremely strong competitors and they don't let anything get to them, as we've seen so far."
3. How much of it is mental? You have a couple of days to think about it, but just a couple of minutes to perform. It seems like that requires almost unfathomable mental discipline, even more so than the physical commitment.
Johnson: "I would say 99 percent of it is mental at this point. They've trained their bodies their entire lives. There's nothing more they can do other than think right, act right, and be in the right mindset. Over the last couple of days, getting ready for it, and I know this sounds funny, but the one thing they shouldn't do is think about it. Because then it just builds and you get the nerves going and the adrenalin. It needs to feel like just another practice to them.''
4. You've been on all the talk shows, Letterman, Oprah, been a presenter on awards shows, and of course, you won "Dancing With the Stars." What's the most fun thing you've been able to do away from gymnastics? Was it the most obvious one, or something else?
Johnson: "Yeah, it was 'Dancing With the Stars.' Winning was shocking to me. I just wanted to get through Week 1 and not be the first one to go. No one wants to be the first one gone. That was really, really fun, because it took me away from this world and I got to do something that was fun and different. It was a lot of training, like 12-hour days, but physically it wasn't close to as demanding as gymnastics. It was kind of a break."
5. You know Aly Raisman well and have often spoken fondly of her. Do you take pride in some way in what she's achieved in London so far?
Johnson: "Aly, I love that girl. She's one of the strongest girls I've ever met. I feel like she's gone unnoticed for a long time because the public eye has been on Gabby and Jordyn. She's just as strong, and she proved it, and she deserves this position. Side story, the other night brought me and my friend to tears at the stadium. As soon as the team competition was over and they knew the scores and celebrated, the girls were walking in and meeting their coaches for the first time and hugging, but Ali went right to Mihai [Brestyan, her coach] and put her medal on him. I started bawling. It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. Aly has a great heart."