- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) - Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson has a title no other American female gymnast has ever had.

Johnson beat out teammate Nastia Liukin and several others Wednesday night for the Sullivan Award, given to the country’s top amateur athlete. She’s only the third gymnast to win it, and the first female after Kurt Thomas (1979) and Paul Hamm (2004).

“Being up there with all the other athletes and just hearing all the titles they kept listing off, I was like, `There’s no way.’ Then when they called my name,” Johnson said. “It’s the biggest honor there is. To be the first female gymnast, it’s just amazing. I’m so excited.”

Other finalists were the U.S. Olympic men’s 400-meter freestyle relay swim team; volleyball player Cynthia Barboza of Stanford; and North Carolina basketball player Tyler Hansbrough.

Johnson won four medals at the 2008 Olympics: the gold on balance beam and silvers in the team, floor exercise and all-around, where she finished second to Liukin. Johnson is only the second U.S. gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal on balance beam, joining Shannon Miller (1996).

Johnson is also the reigning world champion, only the fourth U.S. woman to win the title.

“This is an incredible honor for Shawn and it recognizes her outstanding gymnastics accomplishments, as well as her character both on and off the field of play,” said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. “We also congratulate the other Sullivan Award finalists, especially Nastia, who achieved great success and is also a wonderful ambassador for gymnastics.”

Johnson’s big smile and bubbly personality has made her a fan favorite _ in gymnastics and now with “Dancing With the Stars.” The 17-year-old and partner Mark Ballas tied for third with their rumba Monday night, and Johnson was heading back to Los Angeles after the Sullivan Award for rehearsals for next week’s show.

She and Ballas practice five hours a day, six days a week, and she has to learn a new dance every week.

“I’m loving every minute of it,” Johnson said, even if the 3-inch heels she has to wear are a little painful.

Johnson has yet to decide whether she’ll resume her competitive career when “Dancing With the Stars is done.

“Definitely after this I’ll go back to the gym and see how my body reacts to it and see if I still have the passion for it,” she said. “Which I’m sure I do.”

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