Shawn Johnson, 2008 Olympic gold medalist: Christ is 'my greatest reward'

by Michael Foust |

(REUTERS/Mike Blake)Retired U.S. Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson reacts as the U.S. women's Olympic team is announced at the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in San Jose, California July 1, 2012. Four-time Olympic medalist Johnson, said in 2016, Christ is "my greatest reward." Picture taken July 1, 2012.

RIO DE JANEIRO (Christian Examiner) – Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and the rest of the "Final Five" are this year's American gymnastics Olympics stars, but eight years ago in Beijing, it was Shawn Johnson.

Johnson went into the 2008 Olympics as the favorite in the women's individual all-around, floor exercise and balance beam. Her teammates were quite good, too, and many considered the USA the favorite to beat the hometown Chinese for the team gold.

"Every news article in the entire world said that I was going to come home with four gold medals," Johnson says today.

Instead, she was edged by American Nastia Liukin for the gold in the individual title, and the USA finished second to China in the team competition. And instead of coming home with four gold medals, she brought home one gold (balance beam) and three silvers.

"I felt that I had failed the world," she says. "... I was 16 years old, living in a fish bowl."

She even remembers the person who gave her the individual all-around silver medal telling her, "I'm sorry."

Johnson's story is featured in a new "I Am Second" video, where she details how she came to the conclusion, four years later, that the purpose in life isn't gymnastics, but Christ. I Am Second is a non-profit that was launched in 2008 and features more than 100 people from every walk of life telling their life and faith stories.

After the Olympics Johnson soon landed a spot on Dancing With The Stars, but that brought her down even more – despite that fact that she won it. People criticized her weight, her appearance and her personality.

"It affected me immensely," she says in the seven-minute video. "It drove me to try and change everything about myself."

Eventually she decided to continue her chase for an Olympic individual title at the 2012 Summer Games in London, training 40 hours a week in a grueling regimen. But her age was catching up to her, and she could not lose the necessary weight. She wasn't sleeping well, wasn't eating properly, and even was losing hair. She remembers crying – a lot.

Then on one practice day, while beginning a balance beam routine, she felt a sense of peace rush over her.

"In that one moment I felt like God was telling me: You've been so distraught over this decision and you've been putting yourself through all of this and your family through all of this. You've been afraid of disappointing a lot of people. ... It's OK to follow your heart and to put it behind you," she says.

"In that instance," she says, "I felt the entire world being lifted off my shoulders."

She chose to retire from competitive gymnastics on June 3, 2012, ending her pursuit of another Olympics.

"I distinctively remember in 2008 [it] not being the greatest thing in the world," she says in the video. "It was just kind of that validation that there's always more. God is the answer to everything, and Jesus sacrificed His life on the cross so that when I stood up there and I was given that gold medal – yes it's a monumental, an amazing experience and wonderful thing, but it's not the end-all, be-all. Yes, I can work my whole life to become the CEO of a company or to make a certain amount of money or to win 12 more Olympic gold medals, but it's not the purpose in life. He will always be my greatest reward."