Johnson Makes Her Choice

By Gerald Eskenazi

New York Times, March 13, 1978    Long before any of the teen-age girls who competed yesterday at Madison Square Garden were born, United States women gymnasts earned their only medals in the Olympic Games.

But now gymnasts talk about 18-year-old Kathy Johnson, a perfectly featured 94-pounder who has become one of the world's best performers and a potential winner in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

She earned a near-perfect 9.7 in the final event with a flowing floor exercise to finish second in the American Cup event at the Garden.  Miss Johnson was only four-tenths of a point behind Natasha Tereschenko of the Soviet Union.

Miss Johnson had recovered from a fall off the four-inch-wide balance beam, a fall that she immediately sensed had cost her first place.  It did.  But from the first strains of "Country Roads," the piano accompaniment to her finale, she was in control.

She was the most graceful of the women performers, often making a difficult double-somersault appear easy.  She would launch into her spin so effortlessly, wind up erect, so smoothly that the fane hardly realized what she had accomplished.

When she finished with another double somersault the young crowd erupted as noisily as if a Knick had just stuffed a key basket or a Ranger had snapped home a slap shot.

Although Miss Johnson projects a relaxed and almost cool image on the floor, she is intense off of it, rushing through her practice routine in only three hours a day and talking quickly of past injustices.

She is virtually the only world-class contender in this country with the slow return to form of the national champion, 16-year-old Donna Turnbow, who was eliminated from cup competition on Saturday.  Miss Turnbow had not competed since last October, when she broke her ankle while practicing a difficult maneuver.  The accident had its ironic overtones because Miss Turnbow had tied Nadia Comaneci in an invitation meet before turning to practice.

Miss Johnson and Miss Turnbow have been getting in each other's way since the junior nationals three years ago, when Miss Turnbow was fourth and Miss Johnson fifth.

Neither qualified for the 1976 Olympics, but Miss Johnson won the American Cup competition last year while Miss Turnbow was second.  Miss Turnbow then won the national title a few months later and Miss Johnson was second.

That defeat startled Miss Johnson, who was penalized a costly 1 1/2 points because of two falls and a landing on her hands.

"I said to myself I wouldn't ever let that happen again," she said.

She admits, though, that she bowed to pressure in other years, becoming nervous about the crowd, the judges, herself.  Even now she talks often about her entrance into a tight little world of gymnastics, a world that expanded in this country in 1972 thanks to Olga Korbut.

Backyard Tumbler

"My coach had never produced anyone famous," she explains.  "So when the judges heard my name, they must have wondered who I was.  But when they hear that a Russian is about the perform, the judges are already thinking, 'Here comes a 9.6.' "  A score of 10 is perfect.

It is surprising Miss Johnson has come this far.  World-class gymnasts usually begin their careers while they still have baby teeth.  But Miss Johnson did not start until she was 12 years old.  By contract, Miss Turnbow began at the age of 9.

Until then Miss Johnson had been content to spend her time "flipping around in the yard -- but I didn't know what I was doing was called gymnastics."

The backyard was in Indiatlantic, Fla., where her father works for NASA and her mother took care of a household that included four brothers.

She became too good for the competition in Florida by the time she was 15, so she left home.  She moved in with a couple in Atlanta, where she had met her coach, Fred Martinez, at a similar camp.

"I love gymnastics in a different way from my parents," she said.  "It's not that I wanted to leave them.  I love them.  But I could not place a one-two rating on which I love more."

Now she lives outside of Shreveport, La., and attends Centenary College, where she has a scholarship.

Confidence Soars

She said that when she began she looked like an "untrained monkey."  Now she has so much confidence she attaches a mystical quality to her ability.

"All I have to do is think about doing it, and I can do it," she said. 

When she talks of her art and the way she performs, she employs an odd adjective -- she speaks of "hitting it."  Yet that is what she does, smoothly.  Her style, in her word, is "class."

"I have more experience and poise than the younger girls," she says.  "Class. That's the word.  I know what I'm doing.  That's why I don't have to practice six hours a day."

She is at the top of her profession in this country, if not the world, but she still worries.  She knows she is a few years older than most of her competition and she knows that in 1980 she will be 20 years old in a sport in which Miss Turnbow describes Miss Korbut as "over the hill at 21."

"The audience sees those younger girls and they think, 'Aren't they so cute?' And they think the younger girls should get extra points.  But they don't realize that age doesn't matter, that these kids put in long hours.  They're not babies."

Miss Johnson is only 5 feet and 1 quarter inch tall ("I had to stretch to make that quarter inch; it's important to me"), but she speaks fiercely of competing in a sport where most of the fans appear to be junior high school girls.

So she reconsiders her statement on gymnastics versus her home.

"In a way," she says, "I've made a choice.  I've moved away."

This page was created on October 25, 2003.
Gymn Forum