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.