NEW YORK – Shawn Johnson glides through a conference room at Manhattan's Sentry Center with grace and beauty. At the age of 20, she's an Olympic gold medal winner, a "Dancing With the Stars" champion, and an inspiration and hero to thousands of young gymnasts across the country. As I watch her enter the room, shaking hands and smiling for photographs like she's done so many thousands of times before, I look at her left knee.
It's the elephant in every room she struts into these days.
"How's it doing?" I ask, pointing to the knee that will ultimately make or break her 2012 Olympic dreams.
"It's doing well," she smiles with a nod.
"Today," she says. "Today, it's doing well."
Johnson, the winner of a gold and three silvers in Beijing in 2008, was expected to lead the US women's gymnastics team to glory -- the coveted all-around team gold it hasn't won since 1994 -- in London in 2012. But two years ago, fresh off a stint on the "Dancing With the Stars" reality TV show, she tore her ACL in her left knee during a recreational ski trip with friends. She was celebrating her 18th birthday, she took a freak fall on an easy hill, and her safety release didn't come off.
"My ski got caught in the snow, I fell over my knee, and basically tore everything. It was awful."
In an instant, the sure thing that was Shawn Johnson -- four years older, four years wiser, four years better than she was in China -- leading her team on to the mat in 2012 became a lot less guaranteed.
Now, she's fighting for a spot on the squad. There are younger, hungry competitors -- 16-year-old Jordyn Wieber, for one -- that the media's already jumped all over in anticipation of the Games. Whereas four years ago when she was the story and face of US gymnastics, now she's not exactly the end-all, be-all when it comes to media coverage surrounding the team.
Shawn Johnson's not done, though. Hardly.
She admits her knee still isn't 100 percent, but America's Sweetheart from four summers ago is excited for the US team Olympic Trials in June.
"It's been a huge challenge," Johnson adds as we chat in a New York City conference room during Procter & Gamble's "Thank You, Mom" event. "This is the first time in my entire career that I've been proven to be mortal. And guess what? It turns out that I'm human. I was beginning to think for a while there that I was a machine. But, I'm breakable. I'm breakable like everyone else."
She's only 20, but she sounds like a wise, old sage. She's done media since she was 14 and she's been answering questions about her knee for months. But there's a fragility in Shawn Johnson's responses on this rainy Tuesday afternoon in the Big Apple. As comfortable as she may seem with a reporter's recorder 3 inches from her face, there's a real possibility that her brightest Olympic days are behind her; a thing of the past. If she doesn't qualify for the team in June, she'll be a long shot to make the squad at the age of 24 in 2016.
She knows that. She's aware of her window.
But there's no sign of duress or fear. Johnson's approaching June's trials with a completely different mentality than she did on her first go-around.
"I'm getting stronger on a daily basis. I'm excited for June. This time around, I've taken a whole new approach and mentality. This isn't the end-all, be-all. I'm in it for fun. I'm having fun and I want to keep having fun. It's not just about me, it's about the team. And whether I make it or not, I've already come to terms with either outcome. It's about Team USA and getting that gold."
I try to spot a moment -- a fraction of a second, really -- where she goes off message, but there's no hesitation. She isn't B.S.-ing a B.S. artist. She actually means this.
"I'll do what I can, either way," she says with a nod. "I've played more of a mentor role than anything else this time around, and that's crazy, because last time, I was 'The Baby.' But at the Pan Ams, I was the team leader, and got to wrap my arms around those girls. They look up to me in a way that I looked up to the older girls in Beijing. I'll offer up any of my help or guidance in any way the team needs, regardless of whether I'm competing or not."
But don't get her wrong -- she does want to compete. It's that burning desire that has her up at 5 a.m. every day training. It's that passion that fueled her decision to train with former Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson in Dallas.
"I want to be there, of course," she says with the smile quickly disappearing from her face. "We have unfinished business. We're going for the gold."
As we wrap up the interview, I watch Johnson walk away with a suspicious eye. I'm looking for a limp. I'm looking for a break in her gait. I'm looking for any sign of injury.
But I don't see anything.
Nothing's slowing Shawn Johnson down.
She may, indeed, be breakable, but she's even stronger than she was in 2008. Mentally, she's all there. As she noted in our conversation, she "gets it," now.
"The adversity of the injury's only made me a better athlete. I see it all differently now. I'm excited by the challenge. I'm ready."
Watch out, world.
America's Sweetheart is ready to prove a lot of doubters wrong.