With her tousled blond waves, a bright smile, and a muscular physique, Shawn Johnson looks like she hit the genetic lottery. And that’s before you watch her gold medal–winning balance beam routine from the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. The retired gymnast insists she wasn’t born a star, though. “Anyone in the world can train their bodies physically to be an Olympic athlete,” Johnson said. “That part is easy, but it’s the mental and emotional side that tends to separate people.”
So if she wasn’t just born with Olympic talent, how did she get to the podium? We caught up with Johnson to pick her brain on training for the biggest competition of her career, the toughest decision she’s ever made, and staying physically and mentally strong through it all.
Johnson attributes her success to failing, of all things. “I remember as a kid being so obsessed with the challenge of getting better that everything else faded out,” she explained. “I didn’t care if I fell, made mistakes, embarrassed myself, or came in last, as long as I was getting better.” Choosing to not feel afraid of defeat kept Johnson going through meet after meet — and eventually landed her a spot on the 2008 Olympic team.
The Olympic Stage
Once she qualified for the Olympics, Johnson's schedule became even more grueling. At the peak of her Olympic training, she spent more than 30 hours a week practicing her routines in the gym, five hours a week doing cardio at a fitness center, and five hours a week with a physical therapist. “Honestly, training never stopped,” she said. “What I ate, how I slept, what I did in my free time all revolved around getting myself ready for practice.” Johnson did everything possible to keep herself in tip-top shape, from choosing nutritious lunches to keeping her teeth protected and healthy by brushing with Pronamel® Strong & Bright Enamel.
When it comes to the Olympics, “There is no mercy physically, mentally, [or] emotionally,” Johnson said. “Whether it's the judges, your opponents, the audience, the commentators, your own mind, or your body, everything is a test of strength.” Though she now looks back at the 2008 Summer Games as one of the most trying times in her life, Johnson knows that the experience made her stronger. “When you make it through that, you realize that there is nothing in this world that you can’t handle.”
Her Toughest Challenge
Johnson eventually won the gold medal on the balance beam in 2008, but when she woke up on the day of the event, she didn’t feel like much of a winner. The competition at that point had taken its toll: she was physically and mentally exhausted from competing and had a bad case of the flu that left her mind foggy and her muscles weak. Still, she pulled herself together, and the world watched on as she took the gold.
How did she pull it off? “When it came to be my turn to compete, I said a prayer, dug down deep, and remembered my body and my mind finding any last ounce of will to finish that last performance,” Johnson said. “That day wasn’t about beating someone else or outperforming the other girls. It was 100 percent about finding the will to push through the crazy circumstances that most people would have given up on.” Using Pronamel® Strong & Bright Enamel gave Johnson the confidence she needed to flash her winning smile — even when she wasn't feeling her best.
Confidence Is Key
Johnson left Beijing as a fan favorite, so she knew that her decision to retire from the sport just a few years later in 2012 would certainly generate a lot of attention. More than that, it was scary: she was choosing to leave behind everything she knew for a future that was still unknown. Though Johnson said it took time to find her footing outside of gymnastics, once she did, “It made me appreciate what all I learned and took away from my sport.” That’s the kind of strength you can’t build in the gym.
Credits: Photography: Hannah Heinrich; Art Direction: Emily Baker; Styling: Anna Schilling; Makeup: Angelica Mikaelian; Hair: Carachele Tyvan; Production: Sasha Bar-Tur, Bryan Carroll; Talent: Shawn Johnson