SCOTT JOHNSON WAS NERVOUS. Maybe even very nervous. But compared to Jacksonville, this was nothing. At Jacksonville, Johnson had been terrified.
Jacksonville was the site of the U.S. Gymnastics Trials in 1984, when Johnson was 23-years-old and something of a longshot to make the six-man Olympic team. He was on the bubble, as they say, along with what seemed like half the population of Florida.That he made it through those '84 Trials - securing a berth on what would prove to be the best American gymnastics team in history - is still something of a mystery to Johnson. He was not a walking, talking Dale Carnegie endorsement. He did what he did while wracked with fear of failure.
After that, as it turned out, the Olympics themselves were a walk in the park.
His memories of L.A. in the summer of '84 are still vivid. Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus packed to capacity, with every move made by the incredibly overachieving American team - a team that included Johnson, Peter Vidmar, Mitch Gaylord, Bart Conner, James Hartung and Tim Daggett - cheered with fervor. The Yanks were so good they were often reduced to beating each other. Like, for instance, in the vault - the one event in which Johnson qualified for the medal-round, by finishing sixth (in the world) in the preliminaries. But he was then bumped because of the two-per-country rule. Teammates Gaylord and Hartung had finished higher in the vault prelims.
It was such strength in numbers that got the United States team past the Chinese and into gold medal city. For his part, Johnson took his gold medal home to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he was treated as if he'd just beaten Oklahoma.
"That '84 experience was something I'll never forget," says Johnson. "I remember we had goose bumps the entire competition. It started after we marched out as a team into Pauley Pavilion for introductions, and it never stopped."
Figuring that four years is long enough to wait for that kind of feeling to return, Johnson is trying to get it back - which brings us to his nervous stomach last night in the Salt Palace, where the '88 Trials began with the men's compulsories.
"Of course I'm nervous," he had said in the afternoon, hours before the competition would begin. "I have as good a chance as anybody not to make this team.
"But I have been in these pressurized situations quite a few times now. Hopefully that will help me cope a little better."
Johnson had unwittingly heaped more pressure upon himself by injuring his hand eight weeks ago, during a meet in late May. The resultant surgery and recuperation period cost him a chance to participate in the USA Championships in Houston - a meet that would count 40 percent toward making the Olympic team. He is competing at the trials under a special injury petition. That doesn't put him at necessarily any disadvantage. It just means that, unlike the leaders coming out of Houston, he has no cushion to lean back on. He is working without a net. The trials will be his 100 percent report card.
Still, when the chimes chimed and the gymnasts bowed in front of the judges at 7:30 last night, Johnson was coherent enough to count his toes and fingers, and recognize his name.
"Much better than in 1984," he said. "I was much more relaxed. I was a little tense, but, really, not that scared. I was ready to go."
He scored 9.55 on floor exercise, 9.45 on the pommel horse, 9.9 on the rings, 9.65 on the vault, 9.8 on the parallel bars, and 9.65 on the horizontal bar. His total of 58.00 was second highest of the night - to the 58.1 accumulated by Charles Lakes - and, in Johnson's estimation, "the best compulsories I ever had."
He picked a fine time to have them.
"Compulsories set the pace. If you're in good position after they're finished you're probably all right," he'd said earlier in the aternoon. "Tonight's the night - the most important time."
Of course that was then and this is now - and suddenly Friday's optionals become the most important time. When they're through Scott Johnson could be a two-time Olympian.
"I knew coming in here that this would either be my last meet, or the Olympics would be," said Johnson. "After that I plan on raising a family. I plan on living a normal life."
Two trials in one lifetime is all anyone should be expected to have to withstand.