Legendary Gymnast Shawn Johnson on What Olympic Hopefuls Are Experiencing Right Now: “It’s a Lot of Pressure”

Updated: Jul. 03, 2024

The gold-winning icon lets us in on what's happening beneath the surface for these athletes, and why she says life after retirement "is so much better than that moment."

Shawn Johnson East is beloved as one of the USA gymnastics GOATs of our era. Johnson retired from competitive gymnastics with a knee injury in 2012 after winning four Olympic medals, including gold on the balance beam, in 2008. Now, three weeks before the 2024 Paris Olympics opening ceremony and in a time when the conversation around mental health in sports is gaining ground, Johnson sheds light on what’s going on in the minds and bodies of the athletes who are still competing in Olympic trials, as well as those who have made the team and are officially headed for the games.

The 32-year-old wife, mom of three, podcast host and personal trainer has partnered with Barilla Protein+ and in June she sat down with The Healthy by Reader’s Digest to reflect on the glories and pressures of athletic life: “They’ve been working years and years for this one moment,” she said. “They get one shot.”

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The Healthy by Reader’s Digest: Shawn, in the past few years there’s been a growing awareness of the mental health aspect of elite athleticism. Speaking from your wealth of experience—what are these athletes feeling right now?

Shawn Johnson: I would say for me personally, the Olympic trials was probably the most nerve-wracking competition of my life, more so than the Olympics. That very last thing, standing in the way of you becoming an Olympian—you can literally bomb the Olympics after you are named to the team and still call yourself an Olympian. But if you don’t make it through Olympic trials, you don’t even get to go and see your dream come true. Going into Olympics, all these athletes … they’ve been working years and years and years and years for this one moment, and it’s a lot of pressure on themselves and from the world. And they get one shot.

The Healthy: Is there any part of you that misses it? Or you’re thrilled for them, and glad to be where you are right now?

Shawn Johnson: It’s that. I am so thrilled for them. I’m so excited for them. I’m so proud of them. I think now being a mom and being married and being so far removed from it, I almost feel maternal over them more than I do competitive of any nature. I’m like, Are you okay? Do you need me to bring you a dessert? Need a hug? Do I need to set you up with a psychologist? What’s happening?

So I don’t really feel any pull towards the competition side anymore. It’s truly just in awe and in amazement—and now going [to the Paris games] with my family, it’s just really special. I remember competing at the Olympics, thinking, This is the greatest moment of my entire life, and there’s something really powerful to me about going back to the Olympics with my husband and my kids. It’s so much better than that moment, than winning the gold. Having them now is the best.

The Healthy: You get to just enjoy it. Even just the nutritional discipline, some of us remember the interview you did with Ellen in 2007 where you talked about the guilty pleasure of eating a donut during training—

Shawn Johnson: You know what’s really funny? [Holds a box of donuts up to the camera.]

The Healthy: That’s amazing!

Shawn Johnson: It’s really hard. I feel like every athlete’s going to go through different things, so I don’t want to generalize and say we all go through [the same experiences]. But I will say for me, going from Olympic athlete to normal everyday person, was a massive life transition. And I didn’t really know how to do it because up until the moment before I retired, everything that I ate and did on a daily basis was working towards a goal. There was a reason I would hold back calories, or a reason I wouldn’t eat sugar or a reason, whatever it was, I had a goal to attain with that.

After you’re done, you don’t really have a goal, so you’re like, I don’t know what the purpose is of me eating, truly. What do I eat, and why? I kind of just had to start from zero, and I went into a lot of classes because I had hit some lows that I really didn’t want to ever hit again, and I wanted to be educated. So I went into psychology, I went into nutrition, I went into personal training. I tried to educate myself to learn: What do you need to be a normal person on a day-to-day basis? And you just have to rewire your whole mind.

Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson attends a film premiere in new yorkGary Gershoff/Getty Images

The Healthy: We love your Barilla Protein+ collaboration. It’s exciting to see classic brands tailoring their products to our nutritional needs with legitimately good, high-quality ingredients.

Shawn Johnson: It’s so great—it’s so great. As a mom, it brings me so much comfort because instead of in the back of my mind, knowing that the only thing my kids want to eat is pasta and thinking, like, Are they getting too many carbs in a day? The fact that Barilla’s done this [with] the Protein+ and they’ve made it macronutrient-wise so much better—it is amazing. I can feel confident eating it myself, and having it for my kids. The texture and taste is amazing. It’s not like this gritty, funky combo of things. It’s high, high quality. And my two toddlers, my four-year-old and my two-year-old, literally ate an entire box two nights ago for dinner. In my mind I was like, That’s a lot of protein. Yeah, good. It made me proud.

The Healthy: We women in different stages of life are getting reminders about how important it is to get our protein. Are you a high-protein eater?

Shawn Johnson: This is a tangent nobody needs to know about, but no and yes. I recently did a whole nutrition, blood and hormone panel just to see where I was, especially postpartum. They were like, “You are super deficient in protein.” And I was like, “Well, I eat a lot of protein.” And they said, “Track a day for me to see how much is a lot.”

And I think [I’d eaten] 30 grams by the end of the day, which is not good. So now, yes, I eat at least like 120 grams a day.

The Healthy: What else will you be doing this summer besides going to the Olympics?

Shawn Johnson: We have a jam-packed summer. We do a lot of big family trips in the summer with [my husband’s] family and my family, and we just spend a lot of time with the cousins and kids. We are doing a week in Charleston, we’re going to Turks and Caicos with family, which is wild.

The Healthy: That is jam-packed! Is there a self-care routine that you refuse to skip?

Shawn Johnson: Cleaning my face every single night. Even if I’m so tired I’m crying, I cannot go to bed without washing my face.

The Healthy: We’re with you. Your face looks amazing, so healthy.

Shawn Johnson: Thank you.

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