ET exclusively spoke with the 28-year-old Olympic gold medalist over the phone this month, where she explained how big of a difference a year can make on both the body and performance of a gymnast. The International Olympic Committee announced in March that the 2020 Olympics (which were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic) will now take place from July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
"It's hard to put into words how an elite athlete has trained their entire life for a concrete day and time, July 2020, and to now have that date moved has basically taken some people's life work and put it up in the air," said Johnson, who won the gold medal for balance beam and silver for team, all-around and floor exercise at the 2008 Games in Beijing, China. "I couldn't imagine that happening in 2008; having to comprehend that mentally and physically, then re-strategize and go back to the drawing board. But I also think that because all of the athletes are in the same boat right now, come 2021, we are going to see some of the strongest, most courageous and versatile athletes we've ever seen in history."
"I don't want to overdramatize it, but you could be looking at an entirely different team," she continued. "These girls that were getting ready to make the [U.S. gymnastics] team this year to compete were beyond good. To compete and make the team next year, it's just, gymnastics is such an extreme and ever-changing sport. You have to be healthy, you can’t get hurt, you have to make sure you peak at the right time. They are even taking about potentially letting the girls who were 15 this year now try to qualify for the Games next year. There's just so many different aspects to it that really affect a gymnast.
One gymnast whose Olympic future will certainly be in question is 23-year-old Simone Biles, who was expected to compete again in 2020. But now, with the Games being over a year away, will the most decorated American gymnast still be the one leading the U.S. women into Tokyo? We asked Johnson what she would do if she was in Biles' position.
"I cannot speak for Simone because Simone is Simone, and she defies any type of protocol process or norm within our sport. She’s the greatest!" Johnson raved. "If it were me back in 2008, I had my entire career and life set up as a 15-year-old for the Olympics being my finish line. When I was three years out from the Olympics, I was like, 'OK, it's just three years. Then you get to go home, eat waffles and relax.' If you would have told me a month before, or three months before the 2008 Olympics that I had a year and three months left, I would have reconsidered."
"At that age, and with Simone too, you're talking about the age of college and wanting to just have a life and not have that elite mindset all the time," she added. "So it’s hard. I don't know what she's thinking, I don't know what her plans are. I haven’t talked to her, but I think everybody in every sport is sitting at home thinking, 'What do I do now?'"
Johnson continued on, telling ET that nobody, no matter how great of an athlete they are, could have prepared for a global pandemic to shake up their world and Olympic dreams. Athletes across the globe will have to make difficult, life-altering decisions going into 2021, but their hard work will not go unnoticed.
"I think the only advice I can give is for them to truly understand that nobody trained for this," she said. "This isn’t a failure to not make the Olympics. This isn’t, 'I wasn’t good enough, I came up short.' If you train for another year and you don’t qualify, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have qualified this year."
"You have to realize that this is something way out of your control," she added. "No matter the results from this, it has no reflection on how you trained for the Olympics and your success within the Olympics."
As for fans who are really missing out on sports right now, NBCSN is re-airing the women's gymnastics team final and all-around final from the 2008 Beijing Olympics starting at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday. Johnson will be watching it with former teammate Nastia Liukin for the first time, sharing the experience live on their Instagram pages.
"We're going to rewatch our Olympic trials and kind of commentate, just relive these moments," Johnson teased. "I'm excited also nervous. Me and Nastia are beyond best friends, but we're so competitive. It's going to be comical, it'll be fun."
Next up, Johnson is looking forward to celebrating her first Mother's Day as a mom on May 10, though it will likely be at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Dancing With the Stars alum has been social distancing with her husband, Andrew East, and their 5-month-old daughter, Drew, at their home in Nashville, Tennessee.
"It is kind of a bummer, but I can't complain. We've been very lucky! Given what's been going on in the world right now, I think the biggest challenge is just trying to deal with the natural worry that you have as a mom, trying to protect your baby and make sure they stay healthy," Johnson explained. "We didn't have anything major planned. I wanted to hang out with my mom and my mother-in-law, and then my grandmas. We do like the generational thing, especially since I get to call myself 'Mom' for the first Mother’s Day."
"But something we have seen with the pandemic that is really cool is, it's like there is hope and light through all of this. Just the effort that people are putting into the community and trying to find the fun replacements for that person-to-person experience," she added. "My mom and I, we literally do this every year for every holiday, my mom started it where she will buy as many cards as she possibly can and hides them all over our house. So, we’re still going to do that, and we have all different digital content we're going to share with each other that we’ve been filming. We’re going to still try to make it a really special day."
Due to her family's love of greeting cards, Johnson recently teamed up with Hallmark, and explained to ET why sending a Hallmark card to a loved one is still the most important gift for Mother's Day.
"There's so much that moms do on a daily basis. It's hard to thank a mom every day for every little thing they do," Johnson said. "To take that one day to put into a card, the emotion, gratitude and appreciation you have for your mom is the greatest feeling ever."