Why Shawn Johnson Says She Feels "Sad" Looking Back at Herself on Olympic Podium

·4 min read

Shawn Johnson said she feels "very sad" looking back at "that kid that was on the Olympic podium."

The gymnast became a decorated Olympian at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she won four medals—including the gold medal on the balance beam—at just 16 years old.

But Shawn, now 29, remembers how much she "struggled" to get there.

The Winning Balance author spoke candidly about how competing on the U.S. National Team as a teen caused her to develop an eating disorder. On the Dinner Party with Jeremy Fall podcast, Shawn said that "flaws" within the sport helped lead to her disorder, since she didn't have access to nutritionists and psychologists as a young athlete.

"In one sense, I was so healthy. I think I was more mature and I had a better group of people around me to deal with what I was going through," she said, before explaining the problem.

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"For me as a kid, having this thought of, 'Maybe if I looked thinner, these judges might like my performance better'… I didn't know how to get that result in a healthy way, except for, 'If I eat less, I'll lose weight,'" she recalled. "Because of that, I developed that eating disorder."

Shawn shared, "When I started to starve myself and jeopardize my performance, but still win a gold medal, that is probably one of the worst things that could have happened, because that told me it was worth it."

Shawn Johnson, 2008 Beijing Olympics
Shawn Johnson, 2008 Beijing Olympics

Shawn explained that her accomplishments in gymnastics reinforced her perceived need to starve herself. "And so when it came to boyfriends, when it came to Dancing With the Stars, when it came to a photo shoot, if I starved myself, I would get the respect of whoever it was that I was dealing with," said the reality star, who competed on DWTS in 2009 and again in 2012.

"The only way I can explain a true disorder is, I didn't feel like I had control over my brain," Shawn, who is pregnant with her second child, told host Jeremy Fall. "I felt like someone had invaded my mind, and was literally thinking for me. And it was this active effort I would have to put forward every single day to kind of battle that voice. And when you get tired, you can't battle it any longer, and it's like, 'I need a binge, I need a purge, I need to not eat, I need to eat so much,' and I would just spiral so much that you lose control as a human."

The 2007 all-around World Champion said she really suffered from 2008 to 2012, between the Beijing Olympics and the London Olympics.

"I struggled so much with eating disorders, mental illness, perfectionism, because I was trying to transition from being what gymnastics would deem as ‘perfect' to a normal human being," she explained, adding, "The only thing I've ever known for 16 years, the only thing that I've ever made a decision based off of is gymnastics. Now that I didn't have that, I felt lost as a human being."

Shawn hit an "all-time low" with her depression, which made her consider a return to gymnastics because it was "the last time I remembered being happy."

So, she trained for two years and was headed for the Olympic Trials for the London games. Back then, she was in a "very rough, rough place."

Shawn Johnson East, Andrew East
Shawn Johnson East, Andrew East

"I was probably the least healthy I had ever been, I was abusing Adderall at the time, because it was gonna help me lose weight," recounted The Challenge alum, who has previously opened up about her history with pill "overdosing" and a strict 700 calorie diet.

She decided to retire before the Olympic trials, which she said came with its own problems when sponsors fell through. "I lost all my money, everything... It was just a very, very hard time," she went on.

Fortunately, she had a "turning point" at the London Olympics, saying, "I was so happy and so free, to be not a part of that world anymore. And that's where I met my husband, and he completely changed my life."

She married football pro Andrew East in 2016 and gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Drew, in November 2019. The couple's baby boy is due at the start of the Tokyo Olympics on July 23.

As Shawn told fans last year, "Having gotten clean from the medications and the prescriptions and just the obsessiveness, I wouldn't change anything for the world. I love that I went through it. It was very hard and I don't wish it on anyone, but I've had these tough experiences that make me a stronger mom that will allow me to teach Drew how to be strong as well."

If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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