Shawn Johnson East: "Gymnastics is one of those sports lately that has had a voice in the world of change"

14 years after winning Olympic beam gold and three silver medals at Beijing 2008, the American gymnast and "serial entrepreneur" feels like she's lived two completely different lives.

6 min By Scott Bregman and Ash Tulloch
(Picture by 2008 Getty Images)

Nearly fourteen years removed from winning Olympic balance beam gold, U.S. gymnast Shawn Johnson East feels like she’s lived two lives.

“It’s definitely a pinch me moment for so many different reasons. It's a pinch me moment because I can't believe I was at the Olympics. I almost don't even remember being a gymnast, which is crazy,” Johnson East told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview for the Olympic Channel Podcast. “It feels like a lifetime ago. We've now worked so long within this world of social media that I catch myself being like, ‘I'm a YouTuber.’

“That's like, no, no, you’re a gymnast. Like, you're that's where you got your beginning,” the American continued. “But it's also a pinch me moment because I'm a mom and I'm married and there's just so many different things.”

Shawn Johnson East on social media

At 30, Johnson East and husband Andrew East are what she describes as “serial entrepreneurs” with many different projects in the works, including a popular social media following and YouTube account about parenting.

Part of the role comes with something she says her 16-year-old self couldn’t have handled: reading the comments.

“I truly don't think any 16-year-old in the world is able to handle social media because the thousands and millions of voices and opinions that are subjected upon these teenagers and children on a daily basis, nobody was meant for that,” said Johnson East, who says she reads every comment on her social platforms today. “That's really scary for a kid, because I think I had like ten opinions to deal with back then, and I still couldn't handle that.”

Shawn Johnson East on age limit in gymnastics

Johnson East admits that during her run through Beijing 2008 that resulted in four medals (one gold and three silvers) there was an internal battle being waged beyond the smiling teenager the world saw.

“I was dealing with, on one side, the pressures, the insecurities, the nerves, the sponsorships, the agents, all of that and that was very hard for a 16-year-old to handle because I remember feeling very heavy by that and very weighted down,” she explained. “But on the other hand, I was a 16-year-old girl, just a little girl, I loved gymnastics more than anything in the world and that was the coolest moment of my life. I will say it was a battle for both of those sides. But I do think the little girl won.”

It's a battle still being waged as the sport – and others – debate age limits. Johnson East was 15 when she won the 2007 world all-around title, and she was only able to participate in those worlds because of a rule, since removed, that allowed 15-year-olds to compete in the worlds one year prior to the Olympic Games where the age limit was 16.

Johnson East isn’t sure she agrees with those limits.

“I think the age requirement was put in place to protect kids, and I agree with that. I agree with protecting children. However, I think no matter what, unfortunately, we live in a world where something is going to be misused no matter what regulations and rules you put in place,” she said. “So, even if the age is put to 18, I think they're going to push 18-year-olds probably too hard. They're going to push 30-year-olds too hard.

“My opinion as a competitor is you work to go to the Olympics to compete against the best in the world, and if that is a 10-year-old, I want to compete against the 10-year-olds, and I think you should give them that opportunity,” she continued. “I think if it is a 10-year-old, we need a lot of protective measures in place to make sure they're taken care of. But I think I disagree with an age requirement.”

Shawn Johnson East on Angel City Football Club

Johnson East hopes that one of her latest ventures – in North American women's soccer as as part of the ownership of the Angel City Football Club alongside the likes of Jennifer Garner, Natalie Portman, and Serena Williams – can help be part of that support.

“With Angel City, I think how they are making a change is they are pulling together some of the biggest voices in the world as far as like athletes and entrepreneurs and businessmen and women and all of those people are standing together saying, ‘We're not going to put up with anything anymore. We're going to help every athlete in the world have a voice.’”

Gymnastics, itself, has been part of that movement in recent years with hundreds of women coming forward to speak their truth in the wake of revelations about former USA team doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse and Simone Biles shining a bright light on the importance of mental health and speaking up for oneself at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in 2021.

“I would say coming from gymnastics, I think gymnastics is one of those sports lately that has had a voice in the world of change… To see in the past five years gymnasts be able to stand up and have a voice and truly impact the entire world and saying, ‘I am a human being. I do have a voice and I am able to stand up for myself and make a change for other people.’ I think was a huge kind of inspiration, a launching pad for Angel City,” she said.

It's a chance for Johnson East to come full circle: from a one-time teenage Olympic gold phenom balancing outside pressures and love of her sport to part of the solution, making young athletes feel powerful, important, and valued.

“[Athletes today are] truly just… whether they're successful within the sport at all or not, they're kind of just showing that on such a huge stage, there are so many people that will stand behind you for what you what you think is right,” she said. “And I think before Angel City, before gymnastics, people felt very alone and isolated within their voice and thinking, ‘I don't have a big enough voice to say this is wrong.’

“Now they're just kind of gathering a tribe, a entire army of people to stand behind them, which is cool,” Johnson East concluded.

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