Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty
April 16, 2009 01:00 PM

Shawn Johnson received the biggest honor of her athletic career when she became the first female gymnast to receive the James E. Sullivan Award on Wednesday night in New York.

“It’s an honor that means the world to me,” the bubbly Johnson tells PEOPLE of receiving the prestigious award given to the country’s top amateur athlete. Presented annually by the Amateur Athletic Union, the award is based on athletic accomplishments, leadership, character and sportsmanship.

The 17-year-old Beijing Olympic gold medalist, who is currently competing on Dancing with the Stars in Los Angeles, tells PEOPLE, “I flew to New York for the ceremony directly from Tuesday’s night’s show and haven’t slept since but it’s the greatest thing that I’ve ever pulled an all-nighter for.”

Johnson beat out her Olympic teammate Nastia Liukin, North Carolina basketball player Tyler Hansbrough, Stanford volleyball player Cynthia Barboza and the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay Olympic swim team for the award.

“I’m on cloud nine,” she says. “This, on top of the Olympics and Dancing with the Stars, is just another incredible thing that’s happened for me in the last year that’s made this the best year ever and I couldn’t be more grateful.

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