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Q&A with 'DWTS' champ Shawn Johnson

May 21, 2009 |  3:49 pm

116598_2835_pre There’s hardly been a moment’s rest for Shawn Johnson since Tuesday night, when the Olympic gold medalist bounced past Gilles Marini to nab Season 8’s “Dancing With the Stars” title. We got to chat with the gymnast while she was in New York on her media tour, and the 17-year-old from Iowa couldn’t have been nicer. Here’s what the youngest “DWTS” champ had to say about the nail-biting finale, her close bond with partner Mark Ballas and where the shiny Mirrorball trophy will fit next to all of her other hardware.

How’s it going? I’m sure everyone wants a piece of you.
It’s been a pretty crazy few days.

Have you been able to get any sleep or rest at all?
Uh, not really, but it’s OK. I’ll just live off of caffeine for a while.

Take us through the moment on the dance floor right before host Tom Bergeron called your name. What was going through your mind at that point?
A lot. Before I went out, Mark gave me a few last words to say, "I’m really proud of you, and you did great, you’ve totally grown as a person, and you’re already a winner." … And when we got up there, and we were just standing and we were both so nervous. But we’d accepted the fact that, you know, first, second or third, we were all winners, and we all made the finals and done great, but we just were standing there and so nervous. And I was [pretending to hear] Tom Bergeron say, Gilles Marini! Or … Shawn Johnson, and it kept on going back and forth in my mind. And all of a sudden he said "Shawn," and my jaw was on the floor. I’ve never imagined being the winner of “Dancing With the Stars.” I’m so excited. It still doesn’t register to me.

Are you still trying to process the whole thing?
Yeah. It’s still totally just a whirlwind and a dream.

But deep down, you wanted to win, right?
Oh, definitely. You don’t sign onto things like this to say, "Oh, I want to make it to Week 2," but I mean, everybody wants to go for that trophy. That’s what you’re there for. Except you’re also trying to dance and have a fun time, a great time, and entertain America. I mean, there’s a lot to it, more than just winning. But that’s definitely icing on the cake.

Did you feel bad for Gilles at all? He was such a strong competitor.

Definitely. I mean. Everybody there I felt deserved a trophy for being in the top three. We had all made it to the finals. I mean, at the end of the day, only one gets it. But I felt like everybody’s in the same position, you know? We were all so close. Less than 1%. So I feel like he is just as much a winner as anybody else.

What did he say to you? Did you and he talk about it afterwards?
Yeah, we’ve become so close. He’s like a dad to me. He came over to me and gave me a hug, and said "Congratulations," you know, "I love you, and you deserve it." It was sweet.

It really did seem like all the contestants and pro dancers got so close over the course of the season. Can you talk about the relationships that were forged?
We’ve become like a family. We goof off around each other, and we’re so comfortable with each another, you know? It’s like we’re all brothers and sisters and stuff. We’re just there for each other, we’re so supportive, and everybody wanted to see everybody succeed and do their best. I mean, I’m sure we’ll keep in touch.

Can you describe your close relationship with your pro partner, Mark, as well? He looked like he was about to faint when your names were announced.
Yeah, he was so shocked. I mean, he worked so hard for something, and he put in so much time and effort into it, and you know, you’re standing there and you’re remembering the hard times you went through, and good times.… And no pro male dancer has ever won two [“DWTS” championships], you know, so he made history, and made a title for himself. … He was as shocked as I was. And we have such a good relationship too. We’re like best friends and have been through a lot together. I mean, we almost killed each other at some points, because you know, the frustration — but we made it through and we’re really proud and I’m sure we’ll also keep in touch.

116598_2677_pre What was your favorite routine this season?
Well, of course the freestyle, by far, is my favorite. We just put so much effort into that and really just went crazy with it, and had so much fun. It was just our best costumes, our best performance, and all we did was go out there and have fun. But my other one was the paso. I loved that dance, I felt I really had a great time in that dance and showed everybody that I could do any type of dance.

Do you feel like it was the freestyle dance that kind of put you over the edge and gave you that ultimate advantage?
Um, I think so. Everybody always says that the freestyle is kind of the make or break, the one that counts the most. And I felt like we really hit a home run with that and made a great impression.

Was there a dance that you wished that you could do over again?
I don’t know if there’s one that I would do over, because I felt like everything that happened made me get to this point, but I think the samba is the one I wish I could have done a little better. It was just one that I struggled on and couldn’t really get the feel for it just right. … I mean, the struggle was what motivated me to do better the next week, so I guess I wouldn’t change anything.

Did Apolo Anton Ohno’s comment — that no Olympian who made it to the finals didn’t win the award — put more pressure on you, or did it inspire you just to work harder?
Yeah, it definitely added a little pressure. But I mean, it was a joking thing, and it motivated me even more.

Was your experience on the show what you expected it to be when you first signed on?
I honestly didn’t know what to expect. But it was everything I dreamed of and more. I had the best time ever.

Will all this ballroom dancing and coming out of your shell hurt your gymnastics?
No, never. I mean, if anything it’ll help me. It’ll help me be a better dancer and get that grace that I kind of lacked before this.

Your parents were at every show. How did they feel about you doing some “older” moves, like in your rumba?
They didn’t care. It was part of the show, it’s part of the dancing. Kids that are 7 are doing ballroom dances that are more you know, revealing and stuff than that. It’s part of the sport, and it’s part of the acting. …

How does the media surrounding you on this show compare to the media hubbub that surrounded you after the Olympics?
It’s different, of course, just because it’s totally different experience and different audience. I’m getting almost more attention from this than from the Olympics. It’s one of those things where it’s more in the public eye. It’s a TV show rather than a sport, and it’s sad to say, but the TV shows usually get more viewers than sports on a regular basis.

Do you think that you being the youngest champion will help other young people get into ballroom dancing?
I hope so, I hope it’ll inspire younger people, or younger kids and stuff, to try anything. Because age is really is just a number, and you can do anything at any age, and have a good time at it. So hopefully it’ll do that too.

Where are you going to put the Mirrorball trophy?
Probably just in my room. Next to my medals.

— Allyssa Lee

Photo: ABC/Kelsey McNeal (2)