This Olympic gymnast has a powerful message about body image

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Shawn Johnson won the silver medal for the all-around individual competition. Johnson was expected to come in first, but to the shock of the world, the 16-year-old came in second place to her teammate Nastia Liukin.

Most of us are probably still impressed that an Olympic silver medal hung around the neck of a wide-grinning 16-year-old. But for Johnson, second place equated failure. In her new film I am Second, Johnson is opening up about that pivotal silver medal, her consequent struggles with body image, and her glorious turn on Dancing With the Stars.

“I remember being given the silver medal on the podium, the person who did it gave me a hug and told me, ‘I’m sorry,’” Johnson recalls in the documentary. “I was being given a silver medal at the Olympic games and being told I’m sorry was kind of like a validation in my heart that I had failed.”

Despite leaving Beijing with three silver medals and one gold medal, Johnson’s morale had taken an irreversible fall. “If I failed at being a gymnast then I failed at being a human being,” she recounts feeling.

The following year, in 2009, Johnson joined the cast of Dancing With the Stars and the media scrutiny surpassed anything she had received as a competitive gymnast. “It was now about what I wore and how I looked,” Johnson recalls. “I remember at 16, 17… reading all these blogs and reading newspaper articles and seeing headlines of people criticize my weight and my appearance and my personality and my character. It affected me immensely.”

To handle such critical press by way of completely ignoring it would go beyond an Olympian feat. It’s hard to imagine any teenage girl being unfazed by the negative publicity that comes with being in the spotlight. But considering Johnson was used to intense competition, she used the pressure as fuel. With her partner Mark Ballas, Johnson came in first place for the ABC show’s eighth season.

Despite winning a first-place title, Johnson’s battle with the media and her own self-inflicted pressure didn’t end there. Johnson returned to the gym and was training over 40 hours a week, vying for a spot in the 2012 London Olympics. But six months before trials, Johnson hit what she calls her all-time low. “I was losing hair, I wasn’t able to sleep. I wasn’t eating properly. I was struggling with [the fact that] I wasn’t 16 any longer.”

When the insurmountable pressure came from everyone, it seems truly heroic that Johnson was able to reach a moment of clarity, all on her own, at practice one day. “In that instance I felt the entire world be lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “I was giving my heart and soul and getting to a place that I was not proud of all for that gold medal again. When I stood up there and got that gold medal, yes, it’s a monumental experience and wonderful thing. But it’s not the end-all, be-all.”

Johnson retired as a gymnast in 2012 and is set to marry professional football player Andrew East. In our book her story tallies up to a lot of wins.

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