Shawn Johnson becomes a virtual Olympic gymnast
Nike’s research area at their headquarters in Portland, Oregon is called ‘the kitchen’.
It contains a running track, a shelf full of the moulds of famous athletes’ feet, a model skeleton and a legion of computers.
On the walls are signs reading ‘no cameras allowed’ so we hurriedly walk through with our equipment to another room where we find American gymnast Shawn Johnson.
As she has been all day, Shawn is brimming with enthusiasm while two of the company’s sports scientists use masking tape to stick reflective nodes all over her body.
Around the room are cameras which can take up to 300 frames per second (a standard TV camera records 24 frames per second), and down the centre of the room is a black, foam mat.
A mould of Shawn’s foot joins those of Wayne Rooney and Michael Jordan
Shawn then runs, jumps and flips down the mat. The cameras pick up the light from the reflective nodes stuck all over her body before mapping her exact movements which appear as a series of moving dots on a computer screen in the corner of the room.
Shawn, who won gold at the Beijing Olympics on the balance beam, as well as three silver medals, has recently signed a sponsorship deal with Nike.
As part of the deal the company are designing a line of clothing, marketed around Shawn, and they will use the virtual imaging of her movements to help them make the clothes.
“When she leaves here we kind of have a part of Shawn that stays. So that when we’re looking at designing products we can go back to the video,” says Innovation Manager Toby Hatfield.
Signing a big sponsorship deal
Against the odds, Shawn is hoping to retain the gold medal she won in Beijing at next year’s Olympics in London. In 2008 she was just 16 years old, so by the time the London Games begin she will be 20 and that is considered relatively old for a gymnast.
Last year she seriously injured her knee and Shawn has called the likelihood of a successful comeback “almost impossible” .
However, when I meet the telegenic, young athlete I am struck by her maturity and self-belief.
What has really changed about Shawn Johnson, from Beijing 2008 through to London 2012, is how she perceives her career as an athlete. The sponsorship deal is a big part of that.
”I am out of high school and wanting to go to college and wanting to build a foundation for the rest of my life,” Shawn says. “And this really could set me up for the rest of my life.”
Athlete and businesswoman
Having won the American TV show ‘Dancing with the Stars’, Shawn is a huge celebrity in the States. As well as thinking of herself as an athlete, she must also balance the commercial side of her career.
”I do consider myself a businesswoman, and I’m still learning. But I love that part of it, because that’s the part when people get to know who I am and see the real me, instead of the gymnast flipping on the screen,” she tells me.
Being a businesswoman is something she proudly proclaims on her Twitter account .
The financial boost from her new sponsorship deal is clearly important, but her wardrobe has also changed.
Because she is the company’s latest signing, she has to wear their clothes virtually all of the time, even when she goes to the shops.
”They’ve had a big impact on my wardrobe. I had to throw out a lot to make room for all of their stuff. But I’m not complaining, I’m a girl, so any clothes and shoes and pants I love,” she says.
As part of her day here Shawn sits down in a mirrored room to give a talk to employees about her training regime and life as an athlete.
For instance, we learn that Shawn’s coach, Liang Chow, doesn’t believe in ice baths. And whenever possible, Shawn will work out in the gym to country music.
The crowd in front of her consists of much older adults and yet she comes across as incredibly natural and articulate.
Nike is actually taking a risk with Shawn.
Because of her injury, she might not even compete at the London Olympics. Nevertheless, with her profile, her youth, her good looks and her success as an athlete, Shawn Johnson is hot property in the world of sports marketing.
According to Andy Milligan, branding expert and founder of the Caffeine Partnership, Shawn Johnson is “a marketer’s gift”.
A branding expert on the relationship between Nike and Shawn Johnson
“She is glamorous, she is wholesome, healthy, she has a real winner’s attitude … and there’s a story to follow about just going for it – which is exactly what Nike is about,” he says.
These deals make sense for the sports brands but does Shawn feel exploited?
Shawn is genuinely chuffed to have been signed up by one of the world’s biggest brands. She will have to do more photo shoots and events like today – it’s all time spent away from training.
As Andy Milligan points out, Shawn’s association with a top sports brand gives her credibility in the eyes of the general public, which she may be able to take advantage of post London 2012.
“Whether she wins or not, I think she’ll get a tremendous amount of goodwill because she’s trying, because she’s going for it,” he says.
The money, support and prestige from the deal make it a positive step, it seems, not only for Shawn’s journey to London 2012 but also for her career after the Olympics.