Shawn Johnson on 'Scarring Moment' During Olympics & Overcoming Her Eating Disorder | Unfiltered (Exclusive)
By Liz Calvario
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At the age of 28, Shawn Johnson East has lived and had more life experiences than most people. The Olympic gold medalist is now getting Unfiltered about competing for the USA gymnastics team, the "scarring moments" that led to her eating disorder, her miscarriage and more.
Johnson East began her gymnastics career at the age of 6, but began competing professionally when she was 12 at the Junior Olympics National Championships, where she finished fourth in the all-around, first on beam, and second on floor.
"I was really, really lucky in gymnastics. I had a different schedule and I only did 20 hours versus like the normal 40," Johnson East tells ET. "But I was really lucky to have a coach who celebrated me having an identity outside of gymnastics. Gymnastics wasn't this Olympic sport for me, it was just a hobby that my coach talked about as an after-school activity."
"It was always my passion as a kid so I spent every waking second at home thinking about it and playing," she adds. "I would use my neighbor's fence as a beam. It was just what I loved as a kid. It was my favorite thing in the whole world."
Johnson East continued to work hard and competed in several high-profile competitions including the 2007 Pan American Games, where she won four gold medals and a silver, winning the all-around at the 2007 Visa U.S. National Championships, and representing the U.S. at the 2007 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. In 2008, she won the U.S. Visa Championships, as well as the all-around at the Olympic Trials, landing a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team.
That summer, Johnson East won her first gold medal on the balance beam apparatus, and took home three silver medals in the individual all-around competition, floor exercises, and the team competition category.
"I think the moment I was most proud was my Olympic all-around," the former gymnast shares. "As soon as I came in second to my teammate [Nastia Liukin] and best friend, just being on the podium and seeing the United States flag was just everything I had dreamt of."
After tearing her ACL in 2010, Johnson East was forced to undergo reconstructive knee surgery. She announced that she could return to training with the hope of making it on the 2012 Olympic team. While she continued to train and compete, in June 2012 she announced her retirement from gymnastics because of her continued problems with her knee.
"I think the least happy [moment] to share was probably my retirement in 2012, trying to come back and make the 2012 Olympic team," Johnson East expresses. "I was going through a lot emotionally, and as a 19-year-old kid, I was in a bad relationship. I didn't really want to be back in the sport, I was going through an eating disorder, I felt depressed. It's a hard moment for me, but it was one of the most pivotal and life-lesson learning moments of my career."
While Johnson East has fond memories of her time competing in the Olympics, there was one moment that changed her life and made her more self conscious than ever.
"I had someone within my gymnastics community tell me the day of my Olympic competition, the day of all-around, 'You're overweight. The judges aren't going to like it. You're not going to win because of it and you should've worked harder,'" she recalls. "And I remember, as a 16-year-old kid, it was just this scarring moment for me. But I'm really proud, now being 28, looking back, it shook me for a second, but then I was like, 'You know what? I'm really good at what I do and I've been winning these competitions, and I'm here for a reason.'"
"It kind of shaped who I am today," she continues. "Because someone tried telling me very early on that because of who I was, what I looked like, how I acted, I wasn't going to become something. And it's been my mission in life to prove people wrong now, which I love."
Becoming instantly famous also took a toll on Johnson East, who after winning the gold medal believed she would go on to live a regular life. But that wasn't what happened. With plans to finish high school, go to college and "live a normal life," the press opportunities came her way and "years started going by."
Feeling like she didn't have control of her life, she felt pressured to be perfect and wasn't allowed to make a mistake. With those feelings came the added stress of having to look a certain way.
"I've been very open about eating disorders and [what] I went through, but I think it plays a lot into identity, transitioning from a sport that pushes perfectionism. I didn't know how to set that aside when my sport was done," she admits. "And yes, I took things too far in gymnastics to gain perfection. So, I restricted my calories and I learned all these bad habits because I thought that would achieve perfection within my sport outside of it."
"There's so many pressures the world puts on you and as a kid, after gymnastics, I was used to a coach saying, 'Do this, do that, do this and you achieve perfection,'" she says. "So when I didn't have my coach anymore, I took the world's advice and I was like, 'OK, I need to do what Vogue magazine says. I need to do what Instagram is telling me. I need to do, like, all these different things and I just fell into all these pressures of, if I do that, maybe the world will say I'm perfect."
"If I could go back and tell that girl, I'd be like, 'Everything you're doing is wrong because the only way you can be successful and be happy is by being yourself,'" she notes. "And I didn't learn that for a while. It takes a long time to come out of all of that stuff, to come out of eating disorders and body dysmorphia, and to finally be comfortable with who you are and the skin you're in."
As the years went by, Johnson East was used to the "unexpected curve balls" that life handed her, but from her gymnastic days, she says, she knew how to deal with them. In April 2016, she married Andrew East. The former athlete credits her husband with helping her with her body dysmorphia and as someone "who truly loved me for me, not what I had done, he gave me the confidence to heal."
Johnson East got pregnant but in October 2017, she suffered a miscarriage. She admits that one of her biggest fears at the time was getting pregnant and her body changing. "I thought I would regress and go back into feeling insecure," she shares. "I was just so shocked to find that I had never been more confident in my life and I had a purpose."
Her miscarriage was another example of life's many ups and downs, and one that she didn't know how to take. "It's not easy, and it's emotional and you bawl your eyes out, and you lean on your community and your family and your loved ones to kind of heal," she expresses. "I'd say the biggest thing I learned through the miscarriage is that I'm human and I can't control everything. I felt like [it was] the hardest thing for my husband and I to go through."
"There's this weird feeling and understanding of life as an athlete. It's like, OK this happened. I made this mistake, I broke this bone, whatever, and there's a prescription for it. OK, rehab this much, train this much extra...and there's always a solution," she explains. "And with the miscarriage, there wasn't a solution, which I was not used to. Just learning very early that parenthood means letting go of control was a very early lesson for us."
Now, Johnson East and her husband, Andrew, are parents to daughter Drew Hazel East, who was born on Oct. 29, 2019. Reflecting on being a mother and seeing her daughter grow, Johnson East has a new perception of beauty. Coming full circle, she says that something she's always loved and appreciated as a kid are people's differences.
"I think that's the most beautiful thing about the Olympics and Olympic sports is I would walk on the Olympic Village and see people of every shape, size and color and every single one of them was an Olympic athlete and that is, like, insanely beautiful," she shares. "And I think I fell into society's definition of beauty for many years of like, you have to look like a model to be beautiful. And I think I've come full circle after having our daughter and just knowing that beauty is truly, like, an internal thing."
"It's your character and your confidence and your passions and your belief," she continues. "I feel most beautiful with my husband and my daughter. You know, cameras off, lights off, just being us. To know that I am his wife and a mother, that makes me feel beautiful because it's my passion and it's what I love and it puts me back at, like, the Olympics. I just feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."