Shawn Johnson was the sprightly 16-year-old gymnast who charmed the country at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, winning a gold on the balance beam, and silver medals for the team, all-around and floor exercise competitions.
For a teenager from Des Moines, Iowa, it sounds like a dream true. But those first years at home after the Games weren’t easy. Johnson struggled with the constant spotlight, and, for a time, with an eating disorder.
Today Johnson works as a mentor, a gymnastic commentator and a spokesperson for the Dove “My Beauty My Say” campaign about body image. Here & Now‘s Eric Westervelt speaks with Johnson as part of our series on post-Olympic life.
Interview Highlights: Shawn Johnson
On what coming home from the Olympics was like:
“For me it was always, I had so much pressure on me and so many expectations going into the Olympics that I was going to walk away with four or five Olympic gold medals, and for me, I just kind of felt like I’d come up short and had a void when I left. For me, I was really proud of myself but I felt like all the media was saying I had failed.”
“Coming home from the Olympics was crazy. I believed all the way up to the Olympics that I was going to return home, return back to high school, go back to my normal everyday life, and just be a normal teenager. I kind of got slapped across the face afterwards with just chaos and reality that that wasn’t going to happen, which was awesome. I had so many opportunities and so many great things that I got to experience, but it was a whirlwind.”
Getting used to a “celebrity life.”
“Nothing can prepare you for it. The demand for interviews and appearances and travel was crazy right after the Olympics. It was exciting but it was something that was new to me and something I was sorting through and learning how to handle.”
On her feelings about whether she felt the “celebrity life” was forced on her:
“Yes and no. It was a huge, huge blessing. I felt that I had been gifted with the celebration and praise and respect of all the hard work I had put in. That was really exciting, and awesome. But I was a teenager that didn’t know what to do with my life. I feel like every kid goes through confusion, and for me walking off an Olympic stage was a gold medal and being thrown into a Hollywood lifestyle and trying to sort everything out and figure out the business world and what I was going to do with school and college. Everything was just confusing. I hadn’t had a second to breathe to figure out what it is I wanted to really do.”
On adjusting to the confusion:
“Over time it kind of became my new normal. Adjusting to it was just sorting through all of the opportunities, learning what I liked and disliked and what felt good for me and what felt true to me. Over the course of years, I kind of guided my path into something I was truly passionate about and excited about.”
On her trying to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics:
“I was skiing for my 18th birthday, took a fall and tore everything in my knee and needed my first surgery ever. I remember thinking to myself what if I could never do gymnastics again. And for me, my challenge to myself was never to go back to the 2012 Olympics. It was just to get healthy again and to kind of rehab my knee and through that process I kind of got the bug and tried to make the team, but my knee just wasn’t having it. Retired about a week before the Olympic Trials with another knee injury. It was disappointing, but I don’t feel like my heart was in it any more.”
On what she felt the moment she decided to retire from gymnastics:
“Yeah. It’s difficult for any elite athlete to give up the one thing they’ve devoted their entire life for. It was challenging and emotional deciding to kind of put aside the one thing that I knew I could succeed at was scary, but it was also liberating because I finally got to turn the page and go to the next chapter.”
On how she thinks she’s adjusted to life post-Olympics?
“I think so. I feel like I’m learning everyday and making new goals and challenges everyday for myself, and I can honestly say I’m happy. I’m content. I’m excited. I’m at a point where I no longer have a void with gymnastics. I’ve filled that void with other hobbies and interests.”
On what takes up her time now post-gymnast career:
“A ton of different things. My husband. Being a wife. Working with young kids, mentoring them. I do public speaking. I’m a personal fitness trainer. I’m a part of a ton of really powerful campaigns that promote body-image and good-hearted topics of conversation.”
On her role in recent campaigns by Dove focusing on body-image:
“It’s an incredible campaign by Dove. It’s called “Have Your Say” or #mybeautymysay, and basically it’s just trying to say, there’s this huge trend out there that people want to just rip apart women for their looks, their body and their appearance, and their so-called beauty instead of actually critique them or bring them up for their skill, and talent and abilities, especially in athletics. I went through it and I’m trying to make sure that with Dove we can not have the next generation go through it.”
“I feel like they critique every female athlete that way. I remember competing and reading more headlines and articles that talked about how I was stocky and muscular and not the stereotypical gymnast body. It frustrated me so much because I worked so hard to be respected for my skills, and to read these articles that didn’t even mention it, it was frustrating as an athlete.”
On her advice for girls and women heading into the Rio Olympics who might feel that same pressure.
“I would say for every girl, whether you’re an athlete or not, I feel in your respected field and with who you are not to let people change your appearance because they have an opinion that doesn’t coincide with yours. Don’t let anybody change you. I feel like strongest, most powerful thing any woman can do is be true to who she is.”