The untold truth of Shawn Johnson

In 2008, gymnast Shawn Johnson took the Beijing Olympics by storm. Just 16 years old, she won gold for the balance beam, silver for floor exercise and all-around, and helped her team take the silver. The following year, she followed up her success with a win on Dancing With the Stars. She officially retired from the sport in 2012, but the Olympian hasn't been resting on her laurels. Since leaving gymnastics, Johnson has become a bestselling author, an entrepreneur, and a wife. She's also launched a popular YouTube channel for fans who just can't get enough.

In spite of her fame and success, Johnson is a down-to-earth woman whose focus is on her faith and her family. From her small town roots to her international renown, Johnson is an unstoppable force who is using her platform to advocate for causes she believes in. It might have been a while since she won Olympic gold, but Johnson is no less inspiring today than she was as a teen.

The real reason she became a gymnast

What do you do when you have a toddler who never seems to run out of energy? If you're Johnson's mom and dad, you put them in gymnastics. They thought that the rigorous sport would help calm her down a little, and signed her up when she was around 3 years old "literally out of desperation," Johnson's mother said at the Des Moines Storytellers Project: Parenthood event in 2017 (via the Des Moines Register).

She added, "At home she was a terror, and she was a danger to herself. She would stack her toys and try to get to a higher level, and it was awful. So we put her in this little gymnastics class, and it was just immediately a hit for her."

Johnson's parents didn't dream that she would become an Olympic gymnast. They "just wanted her to be somewhere where she was safe, and somebody else could corral it and somebody else could be responsible for it."

Coming from a small town shaped her life

Even though she's an internationally recognized superstar, Johnson stays true to her Midwestern roots. The West Des Moines, Iowa native remains loyal to her hometown even though these days she's living in Nashville, Tenn. Johnson credits her small town upbringing with keeping her down-to-earth. "I feel like it's kept me grounded" she told HuffPost. "Coming from such a small town, it wasn't afraid to put me back in my place if I ever changed. It's given me that foundation in my life that you have to be nice to and respect everyone."

Johnson is also grateful that the community supported her throughout her gymnastics journey. "They were so supportive as a community and they were always right by my side the entire way — especially my coach, [Liang Chow]," she said.

At the Olympics, Johnson wasn't just happy for the chance to represent her country, but her hometown. "A lot of people would ask me where I was from and say, 'What's in Des Moines? Where is that?'" she said. "And I was just always so proud to have my community behind me."

Struggling with her body image

Growing up isn't easy, but being an elite athlete puts a lot of extra pressure on you. Like many young people, Johnson struggled with her body image. "I remember competing and reading more headlines and articles that talked about how I was stocky and muscular and not the stereotypical gymnast body," she told WBUR. "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."

The harsh critiques motivated Johnson to advocate for body positivity as a spokesperson for Dove's "Have Your Say" campaign. She explained that "there's this huge trend out there that people want to just rip apart women for their looks, their body and their appearance" and that this needs to end. Instead of women being judged on how they look, Johnson wants them to be judged on their abilities and their accomplishments.

Life after the Olympics was not what she expected

Johnson's parents were determined that their daughter would have as normal a life as possible despite being an elite gymnast. They limited her training to 25 hours a week instead of the typical 45. "They wanted me to be a normal kid: get in trouble, have chores, go to games and do everything," she told CreditCards.com. "They didn't want me to live and breathe becoming a future Olympian. That wasn't even a thought to them."

Johnson thought she'd be able to return to life as a regular teenager after the 2008 Olympics, but that's not what happened. "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," the gymnast told WBUR. "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."

Her retirement came earlier than she'd wanted

A knee injury derailed Shawn Johnson's gymnastics career after the 2008 Olympics and prompted her retirement from the sport in 2012. For a while, the gold medalist was staging a comeback and had hopes of competing again in the 2012 Olympics, but the damage to her knee proved too severe to continue. "I had already gone through two knee surgeries and I needed a third; I had a partially torn labrum, a fractured back, and then my body was just falling apart," she told Inside Gymnastics. "Unfortunately, I wanted to continue, but my body was telling me no, so I didn't really have a choice."

Johnson retired from the sport a week before the Olympic trials. "It's difficult for any elite athlete to give up the one thing they've devoted their entire life for," she told WBUR. "It was challenging and emotional... but it was also liberating because I finally got to turn the page and go to the next chapter."

Building her brand

Johnson's post-gymnastics life has been busy. Instead of letting her momentum die down after her retirement, the athlete worked on building up her personal brand which has kept her in the public eye — and more popular than ever. "I was kind of cast into the limelight of the Olympics," she told CNBC. "My goal in branding was always just to stay relevant and brand myself outside of gymnastics. I didn't want people to just know me for the gymnast, I wanted them to know me for the person I was."

The secret to branding? Capitalizing on your niche. Johnson's authenticity has kept her relevant and also made her relatable to her fans. "A lot of people kind of get lost in translation and lost in the world when they're trying to be like everyone else, and I think when you truly are different and you embody something different and you're just yourself, and you're unique, you stand out," she said.

Coaching might be in her future

What does a gymnast do after she's retired? Well, Johnson has embarked on several endeavors, but one time-honored profession we might see her in is coaching. "I love working with kids and seeing them learn," she told Lifehacker. "Kids have the purest form of passion and drive and it's inspiring to be around."

The athlete certainly has the skills and knowledge to coach young Olympic hopefuls, but Johnson isn't sure she would like to coach at such a stressful level and is still figuring out what a coaching career might look like for her. "I don't really know; I don't know who it is I would want to coach or what I want to do exactly," she told Inside Gymnastics. "I've always loved the idea of coaching collegiate... I don't know if I could coach elite because — it's just so intense. I want to have more fun with it than that."

Gymnastics helped her meet her husband

Gymnastics didn't just lead to Johnson winning a gold medal, it also helped her find the love of her life. Johnson is married to a fellow athlete, the NFL's Andrew East, who plays for the Washington Redskins. Johnson first met East's brother, Guy East, at the 2012 Olympics where he was competing that year as a track cyclist. Her now-brother-in-law thought that Johnson and his brother would be a perfect match. "I, at the time, was looking to go to Stanford University and [my husband's] brother convinced me to check out Vanderbilt," she told HuffPost. [Stanford] just wasn't working out, so I enrolled in Vandy and my husband was going to Vandy at the time and we just started dating."

The match was, indeed, made in heaven, and the pair tied the knot in 2016. "I love him more every single day," Johnson told People a year into their marriage. 

A devastating miscarriage left her feeling guilty

In 2017, Johnson suffered a devastating miscarriage. The loss left her reeling. For years, Johnson had worried that she wouldn't be able to get pregnant because of how hard her gymnastics career had been on her body, so getting pregnant felt like a miracle and losing her baby filled her with guilt. "I had these guilty feelings of, 'If I can't even take care of a child for a week in my stomach, I can't raise a child on my own,'" she said in a YouTube video. "I felt guilty to Andrew that I had lost his child and I felt guilty to God that I had lost His child. It was just this super emotional time. It was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to go through."

In the end, it was the couple's strong faith that pulled them through the heartbreak. "No matter what you go through, you will always come out of it, and I think if you believe in Him and have faith in Him, you'll come out stronger than you were before," said Johnson.

She once wanted to become a doctor

It wouldn't be too far off the mark to say that Johnson is building her own empire. Between her entrepreneurial endeavors, a memoir, a young adult novel, her YouTube channel, her Dancing With the Stars win, and, of course, her gold medal, Johnson seems like she was born to be a renaissance woman. Her childhood dreams, however, were quite different — although no less inspirational. "I'd say if I were to go back to high school and tell you what my life would look like in 10-20 years, I would have told you that I was going to attend Stanford University and be an orthopedic surgeon," she told Lifehacker.

Life obviously took her somewhere else, but Johnson sees this as a blessing. "Now my career couldn't be any different but it makes me happy and challenges me on a daily basis," she said. "The point in saying that is a lot of us get caught up in believing we know what our path is, what we are supposed to do, and we get discouraged or blinded when our paths change. Instead of letting change pull you down, embrace it and thrive!"

Her life as a YouTube celebrity

Unlike many YouTube celebrities who achieve fame online, Johnson was already famous when she launched her channel back in 2015. The fact isn't lost on Johnson. "Welcome to this new whirlwind of a project I have taken on in becoming a 'Youtuber' HAH who would have thought?!" she wrote in the channel's description. "I've flipped my way to an Olympic gold medal and danced my way to a mirror ball trophy but still can't figure out how to upload my videos! Haha oy vey!"

Many YouTube stars focus on makeup, music, or some other niche interest, but Johnson's channel focuses on her life "in a nutshell." When you're a household name, you don't really need anything else to draw viewers in. While her YouTube following isn't massive, it's still pretty popular. At the time of this writing, her channel boasts more than 740,000 subscribers and has amassed tens of millions of views.

Learning how to work out

You'd think that after spending most of her life training as a gymnast Johnson would be a fitness expert. After she left the sport, however, she had to find other ways of staying active and started taking fitness classes because she didn't have a self-guided fitness routine. "Up until the Olympics, I knew nothing but gymnastics," she told ClassPass.com. "So after, I felt lost. I didn't know how to go to a gym and work out. I fell in love with group fitness because I need a coach, it's kind of ingrained in me, and being in a group fitness atmosphere is kind of like being on a team."

In 2018, she launched her own fitness brand geared towards women called Fyt Life. Fyt Life has positivity at its core. "I started it because growing up in gymnastics, perfectionism became this obsessive trait," said Johnson. "I was constantly striving for perfection, looking and acting a certain way, and I just got tired of it. I wanted women to have a real platform where they could feel safe and motivated."

The superpower she wants most

We could argue that Shawn Johnson is already a superhero. After all, it takes a near-superhuman talent to perform the kind of death-defying stunts that are part of an elite gymnast's day-to-day routine. Anyone who has seen her compete might assume that gravity has very little hold on her. Extraordinary as her talents may be, however, Johnson is human and her abilities, while astonishing, are not superhuman. If she did somehow manage to obtain a superpower, though, Johnson knows exactly what ability with which she would like to be gifted.

"Well, the first thing I thought of was flying," Johnson told Babe. "I think that's why I was drawn to gymnastics, because it felt like I was learning to fly. But then I kept thinking, and I'd also like to be invisible because I'm really nosy and curious."

Superhero or not, it's hard to deny that there's something magical about Johnson.

She wants all women to be true to themselves

Johnson is all about girl power, and a lot of her work is focused on empowering women. When asked by WBUR what advice she would give to young women headed to the Olympics, Johnson instead decided to dole out some helpful advice to all women. "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," she said. "Don't let anybody change you. I feel like [the] strongest, most powerful thing any woman can do is be true to who she is."

This advice echoes the advice she was given by her coach, which she says is the best advice she has ever been given. "It's more of a mindset than anything but I was once told by my coach that no matter what I believe... whether I believe I am capable or not... I will always be right," she told Lifehacker. "It just taught me at a young age that no matter what, believing in myself and believing in my goal is 99% of the battle."

Growing her family

While Shawn Johnson's miscarriage was traumatic, she and husband Andrew East never lost hope that they would one day be able to raise a child of their own. In April 2019, Johnson and East announced that they were again expecting a baby. The couple told Us Weekly that they were feeling "guarded" and "excited" about the pregnancy.

"When we went to the first ultrasound and got to see the baby move, it just kind of hit home," said Johnson. "I went into, like, protective mom, like, take care of my body. He went into protective dad, protective husband, just making sure everything's OK."

The couple announced the pregnancy in a YouTube video in which Johnson said that she is "absolutely terrified" because of her previous miscarriage. "It's natural for anyone who has experienced pain or loss to guard their hearts when things happen again," she said, adding, "I don't want to go through that again."