Why Shawn Johnson deserves to go to Stanford

One of Shawn Johnsons biggest accomplishments.

One of Shawn Johnson's biggest accomplishments.

It’s easy to get used to seeing mean comments at the bottom of online news articles, especially when they concern local matters.

Nonetheless, I was shocked to read the downright nasty things being written about Shawn Johnson on the Des Moines Register’s website yesterday after the paper printed a story where Johnson stated that she’d like to attend either UCLA or Stanford.

The response was more than 20 pages of comments, many filled with vitriol, directed at Johnson for apparently taking it for granted that she’d get into either of those schools. Johnson has also said that she’s fallen so behind on her schoolwork that attending her senior year at Valley High School in West Des Moines is out of the question, and that she’s taking online classes to finish her diploma.

For this post only, I’d like to respond to some of the mean-spirited but more importantly inaccurate assumptions made by the commenters of the Des Moines Register article, and explain why Shawn Johnson indeed deserves to go to Stanford.

To the people who think Johnson wouldn’t be able to hack it at Stanford or UCLA because of her supposedly lacadaisical online classes: It’s the norm for elite gymnasts to attend less than a full day of school, or to take correspondance courses. Some employ private tutors. Many do it for years, not just their last two. It seems like a lifetime ago now, but one of the reasons Johnson stood out is that she was one of the few Olympic contenders who made it a priority to attend public school for more than one or two classes each day.

Most of these gymnasts don’t seem to struggle when they get to the NCAA level. Gymnastics teams are often contenders for highest team GPA awards. One NCAA coach has attributed this to personality, noting that the perfection sought after in the gym often overflows into everyday life. There are a lot of 4.0 students among high-level gymnasts. Johnson, the Des Moines Register noted last summer, is a straight-A student.

In fact, in dealing with intense training at the same time as trying to learn Spanish verb tenses, most gymnasts also learn something about time management and effective study techniques. This likely makes them more prepared than average students for rigorous academic work at a top-flight college.

To the people who seem to take Johnson’s “I’d like to coach” statements to mean that she thinks she’s instantly going to have a head coaching position at Stanford or UCLA: Johnson undoubtedly meant that she’d join the team as a student volunteer coach, which almost every team has. (For example, 1999 American Cup Champion Jennie Thompson, now coaching at a gym in Washington state, did that while she was a student at Oregon State). It’s excellent basic training if you’re interested in coaching. And, although some schools may allow you to do it for class credit, it’s unpaid.

Wherever Johnson ends up enrolling, the school will benefit from the prestige that she’ll bring to their gymnastics programs, even if she’s not competing (which she can’t do; she gave up NCAA eligibility by accepting money for commercials, appearances, etc.) It will be a mutually beneficial relationship for the academic side as well: Johnson will get a great education. And she’ll help the school by becoming one of the famous names to attend. The university thereby looks more appealing and attracts more top-flight students, who may go on to apply for important educational grants, which fund research for things like curing cancer. Big research grants boost a school’s prestige and funding further, which translates to more scholarships for deserving students. It seems inaccurate to say that admitting Johnson is depriving other students of an education when her very presence there will indirectly help fund scholarships.

To the person who fretted that Johnson has not shown “a commitment to education”: Oh, please. Just because you show up to your classes every day in high school doesn’t mean you have a commitment to education either — it just means you don’t have any alternatives besides dropping out. As mentioned above, before the Olympics Johnson did make it a priority to attend public school.

Anyway, what percentage of people lucky enough to have opportunities like Johnson’s would step back and say, “No thanks Dancing with the Stars, I need to go to first period biology instead.” Would you? Or would you figure you could have it both ways, and do the fun TV show while continuing your education, through, say, online classes?

Like it or not (and it’s obvious some people in Des Moines don’t), Johnson is special. She’s an extraordinarily talented athlete who possesses good looks and a likeable persona and who worked extremely hard at an extremely difficult sport and was at one point ranked the best female gymnast in the world. Even those who didn’t like her dance and choreography broadly respect her talent. Few gymnasts can throw the variety of tumbling she performed.

And she maintained her composure in the face of enormous expectations and pressure during the Olympic Games, making only one glaringly obvious mistake (out of bounds on floor in team finals), in 14 routines. Add in the U.S. Championships and Olympic Trials, and that’s one mistake in 30 routines. Note to non-gymnastics people: That’s incredible.

She followed it up by trying her hand at a new skill, one that professionals testify has nothing in common with gymnastics. Ballroom dance isn’t rocket science, but it’s still a skill. Johnson mastered it through hard work, discipline and dedication. She worked closely with a partner to learn the things she’d need to be successful, and she prospered.

Hmmm. Sounds like the sort of person I’d want at my school if I were a dean of a university.

Maybe Shawn has sealed her fate by doing Dancing with the Stars instead of attending her junior year of high school. But probably not. Colleges love people who have accomplished a lot. And it’s hard to say that Johnson hasn’t accomplished a lot, nor is it easy to make a case that, as an Olympic caliber athlete who also managed to be a straight-A student, she’s academically undisciplined.

Lastly, to the person who opined that Johnson doesn’t deserve to get into those schools because all she’s done is win four Olympic medals and a dancing TV show: Uh-huh. And what had you accomplished by the time you were 17 that you can look down on that? Oh, you’d found a cure for cancer? Sorry, I must have missed the media blitz.

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41 Responses to “Why Shawn Johnson deserves to go to Stanford”

  1. fan Says:

    hear, hear. From what we know of this young woman, any university would be lucky to have her.

    • igmagazine Says:

      Shawn Johnson is now in the public eye like never before. For her to go to a prestigious and credible school such as UCLA or Stanford, this would only benefit these gymnastic programs. In addition, she is setting an example to young girls that education is important. I support Shawn Johnson in her aspirations to go to college. She has endorsements and fame but she chooses to go to college. This is something that many other athletes would skip in her situation.

    • gymnasticgirl Says:

      Shawn Johnson deserves the right to go to UCLA or Stanford. She is a bright young lady and wants to further her education. Many athletes that have money and fame do not want to go to college

  2. Katrina Says:

    I just want to mention though… unless I’m reading NCAA rules wrong, she can’t go to Stanford or UCLA as their Division I schools and she’s taken money from competitions (or does she only have money from endorsement deals?)…

  3. Allison Says:

    She cannot compete in NCAA gymnastics (at any school) because she is a professional athlete, but she can attend classes at any school she likes and is accepted to.

  4. Jennifer Says:

    Amen!! Thanks for the post! I think some people pick on Shawn too much. Would I love to see her continue gymnastics? Sure! Am I going to hate her because she’s doing other things? Absolutely not. She should do what she wants to do based on her own decisions–not other’s opinions. We don’t have thousands of people plus the media constantly being critical of our every move and stating what they think we should do with our lives… why should we think our opinion matters to her?

  5. Gymnast Says:

    Thank you for this article. I completely agree. Shawn Johnson was a good student before she had to quit school in order to pursue other aspirations, and the fact that she decided to take online classes instead of going to public high school does not diminish her academic capabilities. Also, if she is able to student coach at one of those universities it might help convince her to return to elite gymnastics, and no one would complain if that happens! We all want Shawn to come back! I would love to see her go for London in 2012!

  6. ry Says:

    In terms of NCAA eligibility, the link Katrina posted is correct. Remember Alicia Sacramone forfeited her NCAA eligibility for Div I but still competed for Brown University.

  7. Amber Says:

    she didn’t say she wanted to compete NCAA she said she wanted to assist. coach.

  8. TCO Says:

    Thye may let her in because of her nototertiety. and I don’t care that she blew off a hear of school if she is really so smart. But I highly doubt she is Stanford smart from having listened to her. Love to know her SAT scores. It’s one thing to be an eager beaver and ace easy high school classes, but things get harder at a competetive college.

    • Katrina Says:

      TCO SAT scores don’t mean crap. I know some extremely smart people who did poorly on the SAT’s because they do not test well on standardize tests.

      Not to mention, just because the way she talks doesn’t mean she’s not smart. She’s 17. Give her a break. I know people of college age women who talk just like that.

    • Laura Anne Says:

      Amy Chow, wasn’t a great speaker in interviews and I believe she went to Stanford, and is now a doctor. You don’t need to be a great talker to be intelligent. Most gymnasts are very good at managing their time, studying well and Shawn is someone who clearly is excellent at learning because she takes on her mentors advice. It’s no one’s business except her teachers and any prospective college’s what her SAT scores are.

  9. TCO Says:

    Hey! I’m not banned any more! I was banned for like forever! So many posts of mine did not go through.

    • Blythe Says:

      TCO, that’s so strange…I never actually meant to ban you; I just deleted one of your comments. Once. I didn’t realize it would keep you from posting. Welcome back.

  10. Lilly Says:

    Thank you! I think a lot of locals (people Shawn’s age especially) are simply jealous. Just look at what happens with teen actors, when they “make it” their peers get pissed, its all out of jealousy. Even if Shawn was not an A-student, universities like UCLA & Stanford look for DIVERSITY, meaning students with different talents (i.e. Princeton may admit a world class pianist with a 3.3 gpa, NYU may admit a top actress with dyslexia & 3.0 gpa etc etc etc.) Shawn would bring big prestige to any university.

  11. TCO Says:

    If yer smart, you do good on the tests. If not, not. The tests are good cause they find lazy people who blow off work but r smart. Grades are good for finding people who work hard but sometimes are not that rocket smart.

    • Katrina Says:

      No TCO you don’t. I didn’t do all that well on SAT’s yet I got good grades in college (A’s and B’s). Every other test in college for the most part I did well on.

      The testing is skewed in it’s about how you test. Not how smart you are.

    • ugly Says:

      I did terribly on the PSAT’s and barely did better on the SAT’s and did extremely well in college and graduate education. Oh, and I learned stuff because I have a useful brain. I know you’re kind of edgy, but you’re full of crap on this one.

      Do you think that UCLA or Stanford WOULDN’T let her in, even if she blew the SAT’s?

  12. TCO Says:

    But you are not smart, Katrina. No offense.

    • Blythe Says:

      TCO, please, no personal attacks. I wouldn’t ban you, but I will delete your comment if it’s offensive, and that may block your IP address and keep you from making any more comments for awhile.

  13. Cidlover Says:

    Katrina, just remember that TCO is the one saying this.

  14. ugly Says:

    I totally agree with your post. Shawn was maintaining a very high GPA while training for the damned Olympics. Her combined GPA, probable SAT/ACT scores, life experiences, the possibility that she will assistant coach and yes, her celebrity, are probably plenty to get her in.

    And why shouldn’t she? she deserves the chance to be considered as much as any other applicant, regardless of whether or not she is famous.

  15. Eunice Says:

    Well, the reason I’m incredibly suspect of this is that for a normal student to get into a place like Stanford, you don’t just need a good grades, but a raft of AP courses and other high level courses just to make the final cut. I highly doubt that Shawn had the time to take the raft of honors and AP courses that most candidates need to get in. So, at this rate, she may have straight As, but they could be straight As in courses that are easier than those taken by the average Stanford applicant.

    So what will in the end be the deciding factor in letting her in? Her celebrity, most likely. And the fact that she won’t need to even worry about taking out student loans.

    • Katrina Says:

      Sorry but what does her not taking out student loans have to do with it? I didn’t for my undergraduate.

      • Eunice Says:

        It’s another way of saying Stanford will never have to worry about Shawn not paying her fees.

    • Cathy Says:

      Ok, but then how did other elite gymnasts who were training the same amount if not more get into Stanford. You’re logic just doesn’t make sense that way. Look at Alyse Ishino, Tabitha Yim, Lindsay Wing, Carly Janiga…. They were training hard core for the Olympics and they all made it to Stanford.

      • MS Says:

        Scholarship athletes do get special academic consideration. How else would any colleges have good football teams?!? Shawn won’t be a scholarship athlete. So technically, she shouldn’t get any special consideration beyond that of a normal applicant. The girls you mentioned were all on scholarship. While some may have had Stanford-quality grades in High School, it is likely that they were “average” students who could contribute in an above-average way to an athletic team.

      • Cathy Says:

        MS, I guess you’re right. Although, it should be mentioned that Stanford has had walk-ons (Tenaya West, for example).
        Anyway, I still think that we don’t know enough about Shawn’s classes to actually form an accurate opinion. I’m not even sure it’s our business to begin with.

      • RN2B Says:

        Don’t forget Amy Chow did both her undergrad and Med school at Stanford AFTER the 1996 Olympics where she no longer had NCAA eligibility. She got into Stanford based on grades, not scholarship for athletics.

    • April Says:

      In my opinion, the thought that schools like Stanford only accept students with good grades, high SAT’s, AP classes, etc. is very much a myth. Schools like Stanford also like to accept students who have unique experiences to share with the University. Some of these new students are older, more experienced, well-traveled, may already have a career, and may come from overseas. Many kids who are homeschooled still get into Ivy League schools.

  16. Courtney Says:

    Thank you! I am in the midst of an online, bridge program (paramedic-to-RN), and anyone who believes that distance learning is the easy way out is full of it. There is no way on this Earth that I would be able to attend traditional nursing school while working full-time and part-time, being married and having two young children. There is also no way that I would have had the discipline to go through an online curriculum without the time management skills I learned as a competitive gymnast.

    In any type of class, you get out of it what you put into it. Distance learning is NOT for everyone. It is a solitary life where temptation to slack off is all around, and where the risk of falling behind is there multifold (much more so than for traditional courses). But for many of us, it’s our only option, and not that long ago, it wasn’t an option. Shawn is incredibly fortunate to have this chance to finish high school, and she can also knock out some of the lower-level college courses online, too.

    You go, Shawn!

  17. alexa Says:

    she made many more mistakes. just because she didn’t fall off anything she still had major breaks on beam and her vault wasn’t always fantastic. yes- she never feel but she still had major deductions.

  18. Kristen Says:

    “UCLA and Stanford both have wonderful gymnastics teams and wonderful academics. It’s just about what I like the most.”

    I think the real issue was the way she phrased her statement. Unless she was misquoted, she was talking as if she has already been offered admission by both schools.

    At any rate, I hope she does go to UCLA or Stanford. They are great schools and she’ll have no problem handling the academic pressure that comes with (certain) college courses.

    • Katrina Says:

      I don’t think she meant that she’s been accepted already. I’ve phrased my statements about two of the grad schools I’m applying to just like that so I don’t necessarily think she meant was already accepted.

  19. Deidre Says:

    I totally agree. She deserves to go to wherever she would like, and I’m sure she will excel wherever she ends up. The drive and determination it takes to be the best, to compete with the best, and still maintain a home life that’s healthy and nurturing, is amazing. She is an amazing example of a well-rounded, mentally healthy individual, and any school would be lucky to have her.

    I have to say, though, the comment about ballroom dancing not being rocket science? Kinda demeaning. Try learning ballroom dancing, the proper way, from the inside out. The professional dancers have to exert as much effort as a gymnast, and do it with a partner. It’s not just a skill; it is most certainly a sport, and takes just as much mental, and physical effort, that gymnastics does. And, done properly, it has all the same elements as gymnastics, so I’m nor sure who said they had nothing in common… And not demeaning Shawn’s accomplishments in either, because they’re both incredibly hard sports to attempt. Just trying to get out of the non-sporting mindset that ballroom dancing seems to induce.

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