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Entering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, U.S. gymnast Shawn Johnson — much like Simone Biles this year — was the favorite to win four gold medals for Team USA. The newspapers said it, the fans expected it and Johnson told herself that she needed it.
She quickly became defined by her sport and performance.
Yet, to Johnson’s dismay, other gymnasts — including her teammate Nastia Liukin — beat her out in the floor exercise, all-around and team competitions. Johnson left Beijing three gold medals short of her expectations — of her identity.
“I told everybody [the all-around silver medal] was the biggest honor of my life, but [it] really kind of crushed my heart,” said Johnson in a video interview with “I Am Second,” featured above.
The years following Johnson’s disappointment in Beijing consisted of constant media scrutiny and a continued identity crisis for Johnson. Someone — so it seemed to Johnson — was always critiquing her weight or her appearance or character.
Johnson felt unfit for the world’s expectations of her — the identity she’d tried so hard to assume.
“[The criticism] drove me to try to change everything about myself,” Johnson said. “Trying to act like someone you aren’t and trying to look like someone you will never be is exhausting and draining. Feeling like the world doesn’t accept you for who you are — kind of — it hurts your heart.”
Johnson fought this inner battle while trying to comeback from an ACL injury in order to qualify for the upcoming Olympics in London. She was wearing herself down — mentally, physically, spiritually — until in one moment, while standing on the balance beam, she gave it all up.
On June 3, 2012, Johnson decided to retire from gymnastics — realizing that her identity extended beyond the sport.
“[Winning gold medals] is not the purpose in life,” Johnson said.
“[Jesus] will always be my greatest reward and my proudest award.”