Worth more than gold

After three silvers at the Beijing Olympics American Shawn Johnson finally snatched the gold in the Women’s balance beam competition, but the damage had already been done

Shawn Johnson
LOS ANGELES - JULY 14, 2015: Former Olympic American Artistic Gymnast Shawn Johnson attends the 2015 Sports Humanitarian Of The Year Awards. (Photo Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)

She had won, was a world champion, and she only felt inadequate and disappointed. That feeling followed her until one day, as she stood on the edge of the beam getting ready to start flipping one practice, she felt it all— the pressure, the sense of failure, the criticism, the pain and anxiety— go away in a single instant.

The retired artistic gymnast says she remembers every detail about Beijing. She remembers starting her balance-beam routine and giving "the best routine of my entire life".

"I'd never felt lighter in my life," Shawn says, smiling. "I felt like I was on top of the world. I remember seeing 50, 000 people on their feet giving me a standing ovation."

But it was not enough to earn her gold. "The person who gave me the silver on the podium told me, 'I'm sorry'. It was kind of a validation in my heart that I had failed."

Back home, she felt burdened by the feeling that she had disappointed everyone.

"I'd given 200 per cent in competition that day but I felt like I had failed the world," Shawn says.

"I felt like since the world saw me as nothing else, if I failed at being a gymnast I failed at being a human being."

She says she felt everything about her was constantly being critiqued, from her appearance and weight to her personality and character— a feeling that only magnified after she competed next to "supermodels" as the youngest contestant in the history of Dancing with the Stars.

"It drove me to try to change everything about myself," she says of the limelight. "Trying to act like someone you aren't and trying to look like someone you will never be is exhausting and draining. And feeling like the world doesn't accept you for who you are, it hurts your heart."

Dancing with the Stars ended, but the scrutiny and pressure wasn't over. It was time for the 2012 comeback at the London Olympics.

Shawn describes months of hard work leading up to the games with 40-hour training weeks, constant and fruitless efforts to lose weight; loss of hair, loss of sleep, loss of appetite. She worked herself nearly ill; but couldn't disappoint everyone again.

"Day after day [I was] coming home from practice just bawling and bawling, not having any outlet of peace."

That peace came, unanticipated, unexplained, in a single moment, standing where she had stood a thousand times before. Her toes hanging off the beam, she felt a warm voice speak to her heart.

"In that instant I felt like God was telling me, 'You've been so distraught over this decision ... you've been afraid of disappointing a lot of people. But it's okay to follow your heart and put it behind you'," Shawn recalls.

Shawn's parents had told her about God as a child and though they did not regularly attend church. God had become more "real" to her in recent years as she started reflecting on the Bible more.

"In that instant I felt the entire world be lifted off my shoulders. In that instant I knew it was going to be okay."

“It drove me to try to change everything about myself”Shawn chose to retire from competitive gymnastics on June 3rd, 2012, the hardest decision of her life. She says, "to step away from the sport that defined me as a person was really difficult".

But she had won gold before and it had been nothing but disappointing. She knew there was more, and she finally recognised the place from which she ought to get her validation.

"God is the answer to everything. Jesus sacrificed His life on the cross so that when I stood up there and I was given that gold medal, yes it was a monumental thing, but it wasn't the end of it all.

"I can work my whole life to become the CEO of a company or to make a certain amount of money or win 12 more Olympic gold medals but it's not the purpose in life," she concludes.

"He will always be my greatest reward and my proudest reward."

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