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Shawn Johnson Talks Gymnastics and Life After Competition

Penn State welcomed Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson to Eisenhower Auditorium last night as the first of SPA’s Distinguished Speaker Series this semester. Johnson spoke to an awestruck crowd on her impressive achievements as an Olympian, Dancing with the Stars champion, and 2009 MLB Celebrity Softball Game participant (not to be ignored).

Johnson, clad in three-inch-high boots to slightly modify her 4’9″ build, stood in front of an audience of several hundred as she she explained the difficulties and rewards of being a competitive gymnast from such a young age. Beginning the sport at the ripe age of three, her Olympic aspirations began by the time she was thirteen. At age sixteen, when most people her age were basking in the glory of holding a valid driver’s license in their hands, Johnson flew to the Beijing Olympics, going into the competition undefeated.

Allow me to refresh the memories of those who may not recall the events that occurred at the Beijing Olympics. Shawn Johnson competed against not only a quite possibly underage Team China, but Nastia Liukin as a fellow American teammate and her greatest competitor in the All Around competition. The crowd favorite to take the gold medal, Johnson found out mere seconds before her floor routine that the gold was in the hands of Liukin. At age sixteen, Johnson felt in that moment as though she had disappointed the entire country. She noted that the president of the International Olympics Committee visibly looked “pained” to hang the silver medal around her neck. Additionally, the first question she was asked after the awards ceremony was “Shawn, how does it feel to lose?” to which Johnson replied, “I didn’t lose. I won a silver medal for our country.”

Johnson told the crowd of the recurring feeling of disappointing others, which once again occurred in 2012 when she announced her retirement from gymnastics. Coming off of three silver medals at the Panamerican Championships and only a month away from selecting the Olympic team for the London Olympics, Johnson described her decision to retire as the as the most difficult one she ever made “because the entire world was against (her) decision.” She explained that aside from dissent from social media, calling her sponsors to announce her retirement as a difficulty but a necessity for not only herself, but others.

“When I was sixteen, my life revolved around the Olympics,” she said. “I was in the company of sixteen year old girls whose world revolved around the Olympics. For me, it didn’t and it didn’t seem fair. The best thing to do is to decide against what everyone else wants you to do, because that’s the best thing you can do for yourself.”

After competing in two seasons of Dancing with the Stars, Johnson enrolled at Vanderbilt University* to earn a degree in sports psychology and nutrition. She expressed her strong desire to help young athletes, in particular gymnasts, dancers, cheerleaders, and ice skaters, through mentoring, nutritional education, and support. Additionally, Johnson travels around the country promoting the Character Counts! program but more importantly, fighting the widespread notion that a silver medal isn’t good enough (remember McKayla Maroney’s infamous not-impressed meme?). She explained that if a teenager can make it to the Olympics and win a silver medal, but be faced with disappointment, then what we’re teaching is wrong.

Her half hour long presentation concluded with a Q&A session, in which Johnson was asked questions ranging from gymnastics to love interests. She said prior to opening the floor to the audience that she cannot state if she is in a relationship or not, but nevertheless I’ve listed a couple of the more interesting questions below:

  • John-“Have you had ice cream at the Creamery?” Shawn-“No.” John-“Will you go with me?” Shawn-“You have guts. Maybe. What’s your name?” John- “John.” Shawn-“John. I’m Shawn.”
  • “Will you follow me on Twitter?”
  • “Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte?” (Johnson prefers Michael Phelps, though she is close with the Lochte family.)

When asked if this will be her last time at Penn State, Johnson replied that she works at Camp Woodward located about 40 minutes outside of State College, and that she loves the University Park campus.

“There’s a lot of kids here!” Touché, Shawn Johnson.

*Johnson mentioned in the press conference preceding her presentation that Graham Spanier convinced her to attend Penn State when the two met at the Citrus Bowl. So much for that.

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About the Author

Yuka Narisako

Yuka legally immigrated to the United States via airplane in 1996 from the small island nation of Japan. Since then she has migrated throughout the country and now identifies herself as a senior majoring in Architectural Engineering. The Shandygaff is her Happy Place, though she was once kicked out of the establishment after breaking her shoe and screaming “I LOVE DAY DRINKING. I’M HAVING FUN.” Yuka is overly enthusiastic about life in general, but especially Ja Rule, Halloween, and the puffy black vest she purchased from the Gap. You can reach her at [email protected], or through Twitter @yukahontass.

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