Gymnast Shawn Johnson: A True Golden Girl
Olympic medalist hopes to repeat success at this summer’s London Games
CBS News, CBS Sunday Morning
American gymnast Shawn Johnson was a Golden Girl at the 2008 Olympics – and she hopes to repeat that performance at this summer’s games in London.
Flying through the air makes her feel “like you’re invincible. Makes you feel like Superman and gives you a thrill. It’s like an adrenaline rush.”
It’s obvious that Shawn Johnson loves gymnastics, a sport she’s very good at: “It’s what I live for.”
At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, she stuck her landings and struck gold on the balance beam, and additionally won three silver medals.
Now at age 20 – young by life standards, not so young for a gymnast – she’s hoping to compete in this summer’s London Games.
“A lot of the kids in here are 10 – so are you kind of like the old lady of this gym?” asked Rocca.
“Pretty much. I’m the grandma,” she laughed. “I’ve been through it and they’re, like, ‘Oh, she’s so old. How could she still do it?’”
Johnson still does it – every morning in her hometown of West Des Moines, Iowa, under the watchful eye of her longtime coach Liang Chow.
She describes the gym as her second home: “Definitely. If not my first home. I’ve almost spent more time here than I do at my actual home.”
If Shawn feels at home at the gym, that may be because her mom Teri Johnson has spent so much time there.
For eight years, while Shawn was growing up, Teri perched, watching – four hours a day, six days a week for eight years while Shawn was growing up.
“I kind of always felt like if I wasn’t here I didn’t get to see her that day,” Teri said.
“We weren’t hanging out, but just having her here, I felt connected,” Shawn said. “I felt like, ‘Okay, you know, my mom’s still here. I still get to see her.’”
And mother and daughter agree on whose decision this whole gymnastics thing was:
“When I would come home and she’d be, like, ‘Are you sure you want to do it? Are you sure you don’t want to go try soccer?’” said Shawn. “I’d be, like, ‘No. You know, I love it. I love the hard work. I just want you there to support me.”
Parents Teri and Doug brought their only child to a gymnastics studio because they had trouble keeping up with her.
Chow told Rocca when he first met Shawn he didn’t notice any spark: “No, did not think all that. Nobody can see that far. If somebody or any coach tells you, ‘I see at six years old, she’ll be Olympian,’ that’s not a truth. Nobody can see that far.”
Shawn took to it naturally. Talent plus a fierce will propelled her. By 2008, Johnson was the reigning world champion when she arrived in Beijing, far from home. And yet . . .
“I was on the beam in the Beijing Olympics, the farthest point in the arena away from my parents on the other end,” recalled Shawn. “And I could hear distinctively my mom and dad screaming for me.”
She was expected to win gold in the individual all-around competition. But going into her final event she was a distant 8th.
“I figured it out about ten seconds before I started my floor routine, that my chances of gold were gone,” she told Rocca. “I told myself, ‘If you can’t actually get the gold medal, I want to go out there and prove to the 50,000 people in the arena that I deserved it.’”
“Was it liberating?” Rocca asked.
“Definitely. I remember that routine, that moment – I had zero pressure. I was just wanting to go out there and have fun and do the best routine of my life.”
She managed to win silver, which Johnson says taught her something invaluable: “My worth isn’t determined by a color of a medal.”
“Getting a silver,” said Rocca, “is not getting a gold.”
“Exactly. You know, one of the first questions I was asked was, ‘How does it feel to lose?’ And I said, ‘You know, if that’s what people think, then we have it all wrong, ’cause I didn’t lose anything. I won a silver medal.’”
After Beijing, Johnson took a two-year break from gymnastics. Slowing down for her meant competing in “Dancing With the Stars.” She took top honors. And there were other accolades.
“Yeah, during the Iowa State Fair in 2008, I was sculpted out of butter!” Johnson laughed. “And in Iowa that is a very big deal, ’cause every year they normally sculpt the cow out of butter.”
But the sport she loved so much kept calling her back. And the mother who loves her daughter so much has mixed feelings about that.
“Secretly, I hoped she was done,” said Teri. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t say that. I really thought that after the Olympics, we would just kind of go back home and things would just go back to normal.”
But Shawn Johnson doesn’t have time for “normal” . . . at least not right now.
When asked to guess what she’ll be doing in 20 years’ time, Johnson replied, “I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow, let alone in 20 years. I have no idea. I have to finish college, you know, have a family, be just living a normal life. But hopefully be successful.”