Olympic gymnast opens up about failure and faith

Sports | In viral video, Shawn Johnson talks about her relationship with Jesus
by Ciera Horton
Posted 7/20/16, 02:03 pm

Just moments before gymnast Shawn Johnson performed her routine at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she heard her competitor’s score—and realized gold was out of reach.

Johnson finished the Olympics with three silver medals and one gold. But despite her success, the Olympian now admits to struggles with depression, an eating disorder, and perfectionism but declares faith in Jesus Christ gave her the strength to overcome.

In a video testimony with I Am Second (posted above), a Christian series intended to “give hope to the lonely and the hurting,” Johnson sat down to talk about the pressure she faced going into the 2008 Olympics.

In her testimony, posted just days after the selection of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Johnson emphasized how Jesus is first in her life, and she is second.

“Jesus sacrificed His life on that cross so when I stood up there, and I was given that gold medal, yes, it’s a monumental and amazing experience and a wonderful thing, but it’s not the end all, be all,” Johnson said.

The video went viral, eliciting support and encouragement from viewers who resonated with Johnson’s message.

In 2008, the 16-year-old all-star gymnast felt pressure from the media, her sponsors, the gymnastics community, and fans around the world to be “America’s Sweetheart.”

While Johnson won silver in the individual all-around competition, her teammate and roommate Nastia Liukin, a Russian-American, won the gold. It was the first time the United States women’s gymnastics team took home both the gold and silver medals in the individual all-around competition.

After Johnson won the silver medal, the man who put it around her neck whispered, “I’m sorry,” a reminder of how fans viewed anything less than a gold medal as a loss.

“I felt like I had failed the world,” she said. “I felt like since the world saw me as nothing else, that if I failed at being a gymnast, I had failed at being a human being.”

Even after Beijing, Johnson continued to live in the limelight. In 2009, she became the youngest champion on the TV reality show Dancing With the Stars.

But she still dreamed of returning to the Olympics in 2012 to bring home more gold medals. As she worked toward the 2012 games, her life became a downward spiral of depression and anxiety. In 2015, she also admitted to suffering from an eating disorder leading up to the Beijing competition. At the time, she only ate 700 calories a day, less than half the daily recommended intake for a 16-year-old.

While training one day for the 2012 games, she stood at the edge of the balance beam and felt God speak to her.

“In that one moment, I feel like God was telling me, ‘You’ve been so distraught over this decision,” she said. “You’ve been afraid of disappointing a lot of people and you’ve not been yourself. It’s OK to follow your heart and put it behind you.”

Johnson retired from competitive gymnastics in June 2012, about a month before the Olympic trials. She went on to study sports psychology and nutrition at Vanderbilt University, where she also met her husband, NFL Oakland Raider Andrew East.

“Yes, I can work my whole life to be a CEO of a company, or to make a certain amount of money, or to win 12 more Olympic gold medals,” Johnson said in her I Am Second video. “But it’s not the purpose in life. [Jesus] will always be my greatest reward and my proudest reward.”

Ciera Horton

Ciera Horton is a WORLD intern.

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Comments

  • sonjakpcooper
    Posted: Wed, 07/20/2016 08:39 pm

    Amen, sista.

  • William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Wed, 07/20/2016 09:28 pm

    very nice, I saw the video.

  • JenniMiki70's picture
    JenniMiki70
    Posted: Thu, 07/21/2016 03:45 pm

    What an amazing story.  Shawn is a beautiful, talented gymnast, so it's hard to believe anyone could feel that way, but when you understand that none of that completes you - only Jesus does - it's easier to see. I hope God uses her and her story to encourage other young talented people to seek out more than fame, fortune, and medals.

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