Almost fourteen years since winning the Olympic gold medal in the balance beam, the American gymnast Shawn Johnson East feels like she’s lived two lives.
“This is definitely a pinch moment for many different reasons. Pinch me because I can’t believe I was at the Olympics. I hardly even remember being a gymnast, which is crazy,” Johnson told East Olympics.com in an exclusive interview with the Olympic Channel Podcast. “I feel like a lifetime ago. We’ve been working in this social media world for so long that I find myself saying, “I’m a YouTuber.”
“It’s like no, no, you’re a gymnast. For example, that’s where you started,” continued the American. “But it’s also a pinch moment because I’m a mom and I’m married and there are so many different things.”
Shawn Johnson East on social media
At 30, Johnson East and husband Andrew East are what they call “serial entrepreneurs” with many different projects in the works, including a popular social media following and a parenting YouTube account.
Part of the role involves something her 16-year-old self wouldn’t be able to handle: reading comments.
“I really don’t think any 16-year-old in the world is capable of handling social media because the thousands and millions of votes and opinions that are given to these teens and children every day were not meant to be,” Johnson East said, who says she reads every comment on her social media platforms today. “It’s really scary for a child because I think I was dealing with ten opinions at the time and I still couldn’t deal with it.”
Shawn Johnson East on the age limit in gymnastics
Johnson East admits that during her 2008 Beijing run, which resulted in four medals (one gold and three silver), there was an inner battle beyond the smiling teen the world saw.
“On the one hand, I was dealing with pressure, uncertainty, nerves, sponsors, agents, all of that, and it was very difficult for a 16-year-old because I remember feeling very heavy with it and very burdened,” 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 it was the coolest moment of my life. I will say it was a battle for both sides. But I think the little girl won.
It’s a battle that’s still raging as sports – and others – debate age limits. Johnson East was 15 when she won the world title in 2007 and was only allowed to participate in those worlds due to a removed rule that allowed 15-year-olds to compete in worlds one year before the championship. The Olympic Games where the age limit was 16.
Johnson East isn’t sure she agrees with these restrictions.
“I think the age requirement was put in place to protect children and I agree with that. I agree with child protection. But I think no matter what, unfortunately we live in a world where something is going to be abused no matter what laws and rules you put in place,” she said. “So, even if the age is set at 18, I think they’re going to push 18-year-olds probably too hard. They’re going to put too much pressure on 30-year-olds.
“In my opinion, as a competitor, you work to go to the Olympics to compete with the best in the world, and if it’s a 10-year-old, I want to compete with 10-year-olds and I think you should give them that opportunity,” she continued. “I think if it’s a 10-year-old, we need a lot of protective measures to make sure they’re looked after. But I don’t think I agree with the age requirement.”
Shawn Johnson East at Angel City Football Club
Johnson East hopes to bring one of its recent ventures into North American women’s soccer under ownership of Angel City Football Club alongside such Jennifer Garner, Natalie Portmanand Serena Williams – can help to be part of that support.
“I think with Angel City, they’re making a difference by bringing together some of the biggest voices in the world like athletes, entrepreneurs, businessmen and women, and all these people stand together saying, ‘We’ can’t take anything anymore. We will help every athlete in the world have a voice.”
Gymnastics itself has been part of this movement in recent years, with hundreds of women coming forward to speak their truth in the wake of abuse revelations by former US team doctor Larry Nassar and Simone Biles, shedding light on the importance of mental health and speaking in on behalf of 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… Seeing how in the last five years gymnasts have been able to stand up and have a voice and really make an impact around the world and saying: I am human. I have a voice and I am able to stand up for myself and make a difference for other people. I think it was a huge kind of inspiration, a launching pad for Angel City,” she said.
This is Johnson East’s opportunity to come full circle: from one-time teenage Olympic gold medalist balancing outside pressure and love for her sport, to part of the solution that will make young athletes feel powerful, important and valued.
“[Athletes today are] really just … whether they’re successful in sports at all or not, they just show that there are so many people on such a huge stage who will stand behind you for what you think is right,” she said. “And I think before Angel City, before gymnastics, people felt very lonely and isolated in their voice and thought, ‘I don’t have a voice big enough to say this is wrong.’
“Now they’re just gathering a tribe, a whole army of people behind them, which is cool,” Johnson East concluded.