With rare slip in the past, Johnson earns NCAAs

The junior is the first Gopher to qualify for the all-around since 2002.

Emily Wickstrom

In Laura Johnson’s mind, there is very little room for error.

The Minnesota gymnast isn’t shy about setting the tone for her teammates in the gym and telling them what they need to improve on.

And her attention to detail is what makes her performance at last year’s regional meet so surprising, when she counted a miss and scored a 9.125 on the floor exercise.

“This year, we focused on why that happened,” Gophers co-coach Jim Stephenson said. “And not so much on getting (to nationals). And it worked.”

Johnson redeemed herself this season as the only team member to qualify for the NCAA Championships, doing so by placing fourth in the all-around at the NCAA North Central Regional Championship.

She will be one of 12 individuals competing in the all-around today through Saturday in Auburn, Ala., joining the 12 teams that qualified for the national championship meet.

“The goal was always to get to nationals as a team,” Johnson said. “Making it as an individual was secondary to making it as a team. (At regionals), I hit all of my routines, and it just kind of happened that I made it.”

Stephenson said he had thought that Johnson had a chance of qualifying for nationals since her freshman season.

“When she got here, she was already so good,” Stephenson said. “When an athlete is at the level of gymnastics she was at coming in, it’s hard to improve. But that’s what’s impressive, because she has improved.”

Johnson has been one of Minnesota’s strongest gymnasts since joining the team as a freshman in 2002, being named to the All-Big Ten team each of her three seasons while competing in the all-around.

She also earned the second- highest all-around score in Minnesota history in 2004, scoring 39.575. The only person above Johnson on the list is Mary Anne Kelley, the last Gophers gymnast to qualify for nationals.

Stephenson said Johnson’s strength at every event has made her invaluable to the Minnesota team.

“That’s the thing about Laura,” Stephenson said. “She has no best event. The all-around is her best event.”

Although Johnson will be the only Minnesota gymnast at nationals, she still said she thinks her experience will benefit the team.

“I’ll be there watching the best teams in the nation,” she said. “I’ll be able to come back and tell the girls what it’s like and what we need to work on to get there.”

Going in with no national meet experience might work to Johnson’s advantage, because no one will know what to expect from her, she said.

But teammates said Johnson has already made herself recognized around the country.

“She’s a great technical gymnast,” Kelly Stout said. “Other teams notice her level of skill and respect her because of it.”

And though she would love to make Saturday’s event finals and finish in the top 20 in the all around, Johnson said, she would be satisfied with competing at the level of gymnastics she is capable of.

“I just want to go there and hit my routines,” she said. “Then, we’ll see what happens.”