Talking With Gymnast Shawn Johnson at the London Olympics

Shawn JohnsonI finished up my first of three days in London at the Olympics, exhausted but energized. I spent time at the Procter & Gamble Family Home — a huge space that is part oasis, part Oz — where athletes and their families can chill out, grab a meal or drink, relax, and watch the Games on TV. (Full disclosure: P&G’s Thank You Mom campaign is funding my trip and connecting me with the athletes and moms I’ll be interviewing.)

It’s a place where athletes walk around nonchalantly with medals, and everyone looks sort of familiar, since you’ve probably seen them on TV. Last night, I caught up briefly with Shawn Johnson, just a few hours after the U.S. women took the gold in team gymnastics. Johnson is a gymnastics pro and Olympic gold medalist, having competed valiantly for team USA in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. She recently announced her retirement from the sport and is joining P&G in London as an Olympics correspondent.

How have you been dealing with the unexpected news of the past few months and having to drop out of Olympic competition?
I’ve been dealing with it pretty well. It was something that I couldn’t really change. I couldn’t push my knee any further than it could go. Physically and mentally I wasn’t ready, and I had to accept that. Since then, I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to do wonderful things, like coming to the Olympics and being a part of the whole Olympic movement. It’s been an easier transition than I thought it would be. I’m doing pretty good.

Our readers generally have kids who are pretty young, who may be in their first gymnastics class. What would you tell those moms and kids, looking ahead at their own Olympic dreams?
Just not to force anything. Kids should be kids and they should have fun. They should try things and not take things too seriously. Success comes on its own, and if you just encourage them and support them, they’ll work hard enough for it.

How did you know when this was something real, as opposed to just having fun in the gym?
I didn’t. I had a dream and I wanted to be an Olympian, just like every other kid. I just loved gymnastics, but I never thought it was possible. I just kept practicing and continuing and pushing myself. I probably was 13 or 14 years old before I said this might be a possibility.

Did your lifestyle change at that point?
It was more gradual. I never did anything drastic. My parents and my coach were really big on me keeping a balanced life and still going to school and not dedicating every ounce of it toward gymnastics, because they didn’t want me to get burned out.

What advice would you give kids on handling disappointment and setbacks?
It’s a part of life. It’s going to happen. You’re going to come in last, you’re going to fall, you’re going to make mistakes. But you have to learn from them. It makes you stronger when you overcome it instead of letting it defeat you. My coach always said you have to fall a hundred times to make one perfect, and I believe that.

What’s next for you?
I will be heading to L.A. for Dancing With the Stars, and then heading off to college.

Any other advice for parents out there who want to raise the next great Olympian?
If you have the mentality that you’re raising the next Olympian, you may be doing it a little wrong. Just let your kid be normal and things will come on their own. Have fun.

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  1. by Kara

    On August 1, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    I like her advice. Really interesting to know that she didn’t focus on the Olympics until she was a teenager. I’d assumed all gymnasts (and/or their parents and coaches) start planning for that way, way earlier.