Retired Olympian Shawn Johnson on Life After Gymnastics
When I heard the news that Olympic gold medalist and all around great gal Shawn Johnson was retiring and putting an end to her Olympic comeback, I said exactly what millions of her fans probably said – “Oh no!” Because we were all pulling for the Des Moines native who won us over in 2008, surged to victory on Dancing with the Stars and then plotted a return to the Olympics this year at the ripe old age of 20. Yes, 20 is old in gymnastics, which is insane.
We were all rooting for her but knew what a tough road she had ahead especially after a skiing accident left her with a knee injury two years ago. “I’m interested to see how it turns out,” she told me when I had the pleasure of interviewing her in May, at an event marking P&G’s commitment to help every mom of a U.S. Olympian make her way to London. But ultimately her knee wouldn’t cooperate. “It just wasn’t going to happen,” Johnson told me during a phone Q&A. “It was a decision to make, to let someone else take a step in my place.”
So what’s next? Johnson, who called us from Los Angeles where she was traveling for pleasure, says she’s getting used to her whole new world. “I don’t even know what to do with myself,” she said, adjusting to a new life that doesn’t include going to the gym every afternoon. But she’s busy promoting her memoir, Winning Balance, which went on sale earlier this month. She’s also already thinking about college entrance in 2013 (it’ll be Vanderbilt or Stanford), would love to do some motivational speaking, plans some humanitarian work with UNICEF and oh yes, how about a return to Dancing with the Stars? “I would love to be on the reunion,” she told me.
Find out what else Johnson had to say about her future plans and on making one of the hardest decisions of her life:
What made you say to yourself it was time to retire? It’s been a constant battle since my surgery. And I was making progress, I was getting ready but we just ran out of time. My knee kept acting up. In reality it just wasn’t going to happen. With only a few weeks left, nationals had already passed. It was a decision to make, to let someone else take a step in my place.
What was your parents’ reaction? It wasn’t a surprise to them. It was more of a relief to them because they didn’t have to see me struggle anymore. It has always made them nervous during training and practice so I don’t think they were too upset.
You’ve said in other interviews that you were concerned about hurting yourself and jeopardizing your future. How much was that weighing on you? You can only ignore your body’s signs for so long. The long terms effects are something my doctor was warning me about. Multiple cortisone shots and cramps here and there add up after a while.
What’s your reaction, when fans like me continue to be inspired by you? It helps and it makes it more difficult. It definitely made it scary because I was afraid of disappointing everyone out there, the sponsors, family, and friends. But seeing this overwhelming support and courage coming from it, it’s been a good result.
Is it a weird feeling not heading to the gym every day like you have been for years? Yeah, definitely, I don’t even know what to do with myself. That’s why I’ve been traveling so much. Just trying to find stuff to do instead of practice, it feels a little strange.
What do you plan to do leading up to the Olympic Games to support the team? I will definitely be at (the Olympic) trials (which are next week in San Jose, California). Besides that, I have my book tour. In London, I have a feeling I will be commentating on some things and traveling over there with sponsors but I will definitely be in the stands for the competition for the girls. I’ve grown up with them. I can’t imagine myself not (being) there.
Have you put your head around being in the stands instead of competing? No. I don’t think that’s anything I can predict. I’m sure it’s not going to be easy. I am happy with where I am at right now and I have kind of accepted everything but I definitely think sitting in those stands when that day comes is not going to be the greatest feeling but supporting the team and staying proud of them is all I can do.
What’s your advice to other women dealing with that pressure? These girls are some of the best we have ever seen. Just going into it you can’t let the idea of the Olympic Games overwhelm you. They hype it up so much and put so much pressure on to win nothing but gold. When you watch these girls in practice, they are among some of the best in the world. I think if they just go in there like it’s practice then they will be unbeatable.
Why did you want to write this book about your life and what do you think people will get out of it? I kind of wrote it to give everyone an idea of my side of the story. I feel like so many different news channels told my story for me, so I wanted to give people a backstage pass of what was going through my mind — what I went through, journals, pictures, diaries, and everything. It is what people can relate to. In gymnastics, there is the idea that you can’t show emotion or share anything you are thinking or going through but this is my chance to do it. Hopefully people can just connect and relate.
Faith seems like it is an important theme for you, is that true? Yeah, definitely. It kind of progressed through everything… There were so many good times and hard times I had to find some bigger picture to fall back on.
How has your faith helped you after this difficult decision? It made it all make sense, everything happens for a reason. If you try to control it or think you can control it, you are put back in your place.
Have you thought about college 2013? Yeah, I’m deciding between East and West Coast, Vanderbilt or Stanford.
What would you study? I kind of want to study business. I know it might change a 100 times.
Is there a chance you could return to Dancing with the Stars? I would love to be on the reunion. It was my first chance to do something outside of gymnastics and it took me out of my comfort zone, they were like a family. I loved LA and loved everybody who was a part of it.
Do you think you have a future in gymnastics? Coaching, probably not, I feel like I have been a part of the sport so much, and on this side I don’t think I would be a tough enough coach. But as for speaking, I love that and any type of philanthropic work. I will hopefully start working with UNICEF, doing field work with them. I don’t know yet where I would go.
What did you learn most about yourself during this comeback period? I’m a lot stronger than I give myself credit for. That’s something I really experienced coming back from the knee injury and the second surgery, and after the first time I stepped back in the gym. It just has been a long ride and I’ve come out of it, happy and healthy, ready to move on to the next chapter.