Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin at the 2008 Olympics
Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times published a pair of articles contrasting the current careers of U.S. gymnasts Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin. The Times spoke to the “graceful” Lukin about the three Marta Karolyi run training camps she has attended since the Beijing Olympics, and her agent about the offer she turned down from Dancing with the Stars. They then profiled a Dancing with the Stars rehearsal that the Johnson, not necessarily renowned for her artistic ability as a gymnast, was participating in, quoted her mother as saying as Johnson never wants to leave the Left Coast, and mentioning that serious gymnastics training doesn’t seem to be in the cards at the moment.
The short, less artistic little kid looking to take advantage of her 15 minutes of Olympic provided fame. The lankier-only-by-comparison, more artistic, older teenager who looks to stay in the sport.
One would think we were back in 1998.
Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan at the 1998 Olympics. (Photo: Jamd.com)
Following the 1998 Winter Olympics, similar articles were written about Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski. Graceful and lankier-looking Kwan, disappointed by her Olympic silver medal, had not made a concrete decision about whether or not to remain figure skating, but kept her options open and continued to train. Lipinski, the gold medalist at the Nagano Games, the shorter, less artistic and younger one, was seemingly led by her mother and agent to take advantage of every professional opportunity afforded her due to her medal finish, and stopped training for Olympic competition. (Years later, the figure skating community would quietly learn that Lipinski had battled the serious hip injuries which had eventually ended her ability to skate on even the show circuit during her Olympic season as well.)
Led by such articles, many jumped onto the Kwan bandwagon, thinking of Lipinski as the less-talented, less-determined, less-serious athlete. Kwan was persistent and continued on, while Lipinski seemingly let the promise of a payday determine her next steps. If Dancing with the Stars was around in the fall of 1998, and both skaters were offered the chance to join the cast, one could surmise that it would be Lipinski competing for the mirrored ball trophy and Kwan declining the invite to attend training camps.
But a decade later, both athletes are nearly unknown and having to pursue other areas outside of their sport – Kwan, the field of international relations (although according to the Washington Post, she may consider a comeback), and Lipinski, acting and voiceover work. Taking advantage of the time immediately following the Olympics, in either way they did, gave them a cushion to fall back on once their time as athletes ended.
And now we are in 2009, and the two teenage stars of the Summer Olympics find themselves beginning to be portrayed in a similar light. Is Johnson wrong for taking high profile mainstream media opportunities while she can? In a report this week, it was reported that Dancing with the Stars participants make $200,000 for the season. Is Johnson, a 17 year old who doesn’t know a world outside of gymnastics and probably can not even think about what she could have a career in as an adult that does not involve the sport, wrong for earning that while she can? Is Liukin, who has also taken advantage of a few lesser profile mainstream media opportunities (modeling and a small appearance on Gossip Girl) right for continuing to subject herself to the svengalis that are the Karolyis and continue on a path towards the World Championships later this year? Both paths take into consideration that these girls are in the “twilight” of their competitive careers, but one has decided to continue on the known path for at least one more year to boost her resume a tad more, while the other realizes that her time as a gymnast is winding down, and that it may be prudent to take advantage of what she can while she can.
Essentially, aren’t Johnson and Liukin, like Kwan and Lipinski before them, just two teenagers who are taking advantage of the comparative variety of opportunities available to them, given the limited scope of their life experiences and the lack of relative choice in their opportunities at other points in their life. Although the paths may vary, both take advantage of the limited amount of time they have to either compete in their sport or cash in on notoriety gained from their sport. And when you’ve been doing the same exact thing, and training for a singular goal since you were three, can you blame them for taking advantage of the opportunities available to them while they can?