Gymnast Shawn Johnson reveals highs, lows at Penn State distinguished speaker series

For the CDTOctober 3, 2013 

— Before a crowded Eisenhower Auditorium teeming with students, parents and future gymnasts at the Student Programming Association’s distinguished speaker series, Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson shared her life story — but it wasn’t what you might expect from a superstar athlete and celebrity.

As a child, Johnson felt as if she never fit in. When she was in elementary school, she was always training for gymnastics and didn’t have any time to share with her friends. Johnson said her life was like the movie “Mean Girls” — other girls saw her athletic ability and success as a threat to their popularity, and tried to hurt her feelings.

“Popular girls hated me,” Johnson said. “I was picked on, teased, everything. They didn’t like me because they thought I was going to be a model.”

But Johnson decided to take a stand for her beliefs, even at such a young age. Although she admitted to feeling upset when she wasn’t fitting in (she even tried to change her name to Mary because “Shawn was so weird”), her friends and family kept her spirits high. Her mother told her that “being different is good,” so Johnson chose to ignore the negative comments from her peers and began to own her identity as a talented gymnast.

“The best thing you can do in your life is to decide against what people want you to do, because only you know what’s best for you,” she said.

Johnson called her second place finish in the individual all-around competition at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing one of the defining moments of her career.

After hearing the media pronounce her as “America’s greatest hope” and the favorite to take home four gold medals at the Summer Games, Johnson said she felt an immense amount of pressure to win. But when she was mathematically eliminated by teammate Nastia Liukin before her final routine, she was left in stunned disbelief.

“I remember looking at the scoreboard and feeling traumatized,” she said. “In one second, I felt like a disappointment.”

And then something strange happened. As Johnson recalls, before she went out to perform her last routine having already lost her chance at the gold medal, she felt liberated and free for the first time in her career.

“In that instant, I was no longer doing it for anybody — I was doing it for me,” she said. “I worked 13 years for that moment and wasn’t going to throw it away. If you can’t win the gold medal, at least go out there and prove to the world that you deserved it.”

Johnson’s message for young gymnasts was simple: stay true to yourself, because when all is said and done, only you can be your motivation.

“Society teaches us that if we don’t win a gold medal, we have failed,” she said. “I had to find worth within myself. Nobody told me ‘good job.’ You have to be proud of yourself and work for it — not to be praised for it, but because you want it.”

While working for USA Today during the 2012 Olympics and mentoring the young girls of the U.S. gymnastics team, Johnson found her motivation. With the help of her teammates from the 2008 squad, Johnson plans to start a mentorship program for young gymnasts to teach what she’s learned, including nutrition information, mental strength and motivational coaching help.

In addition, Johnson plans to open an “educational and recreational facility for kids,” with plans to provide accreditation for college and high school for enrollment with the gym.

“I was given the gift to fulfill my dream,” Johnson said when speaking about her many philanthropic efforts, including work with the Ronald McDonald House Charities and Make-a-Wish Foundation. “I believe it’s my duty to help other people fulfill theirs.”

C.J. Doon is a Penn State journalism student.

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