Former Olympic Gymnast Shawn Johnson on Being a Winner in God’s Eyes vs. the World’s Eyes

One of the most aggravating aspects of the Olympics to me is when reporters treat silver medalists like losers – as if being the second best athlete in your field in THE ENTIRE WORLD is somehow something to hang your head about. In her engaging and enjoyable new memoir “Winning Balance” (co-written with Nancy Anderson French), former Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson reveals she had a hard time with that attitude herself. In fact, she was shocked by it.

During the individual all-around competition at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, both Shawn and her friend/teammate, Nastia Liukin, were expected to be in a tight competition for the gold medal. That’s exactly what happened.

Their scores were close throughout most of the competition in which they had to compete in four categories: vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercises. After the balance beam, however, Shawn saw from the scoreboard that it was mathematically impossible for her to beat Nastia. A little dispirited because there had been such an emphasis on her winning gold, Shawn briefly questioned whether she should just give up. She quickly realized that failure – and that’s exactly what giving up would be: failure – was not an option.

Recalling the moment, Shawn writes, “I was still determined to give this performance my entire heart and soul, but my motivation had changed. In some strange way, once I knew the gold was out of reach, I was free to go out there and just be me, the natural competitor who nonetheless had stuck with gymnastics since age three for the pure joy of the sport. I would show the world what I could do while having fun doing it.”

And so she did. Shawn earned the silver medal in the all-around, while Nastia won the gold. For the first time ever, Americans had won the top two spots in this competition. Ever a model of class and dignity, Shawn was genuinely happy for Nastia and also satisfied with her own performance. Until the reporters stepped in.

Instead of asking how great it felt to win silver, they asked Shawn how it felt to lose. The happy young gymnast was surprised and disheartened. With the negative focus of the questions aimed at her, she admits to fighting to hold back tears. In retrospect, however, that experience became a defining moment. Even though she went on to win a total of three silver medals (in Team, Floor, and All Around) and one gold (in Balance Beam), it was the silver in the all-around that taught her the greatest life lesson.

During an interview on Christopher Closeup, Shawn told me, “I honestly was more proud of my silver medals than the gold or any other for that matter. Going into the all-around competition, it was my event. It’s what I worked my entire life for. And there’s something sad about being given a silver, and having the world think that you aren’t worth the attention. It makes you find the pride for the work and success within yourself. To me, that made me the strongest and most proud person I could have been.”

Shawn further explains in her book, “God created you in His image; that is where your worth comes from…I realized gymnastics was no longer the most important thing to me…I knew that my friends and family loved me, that God was watching over me, and that I had represented my nation well at the Olympics. All in all, I knew that my life was solid and balanced.”

That perspective came in handy when the teen who had faced levels of adversity throughout her life faced even more, including the discovery that a stalker had planned to kidnap her while she was appearing on the TV series “Dancing with the Stars” – and the difficult decision to end her gymnastics career. On a more personal level, she gained a new understanding of demonstrating grace through times of struggle by watching her friend’s sister deal with chemotherapy for cancer.

Shawn told me, “Seeing her go through that while tending to four beautiful kids and not once complain—all the effort, drama and stress I was putting on winning a gold medal or getting to practice, it made it seem completely irrelevant and unnecessary. It’s family and faith and health that means the most. I feel like we don’t put enough attention on that. It was a great reality check for me.”

If you’ve ever seen Shawn Johnson on TV, you know that she’s a talented young woman with a bright smile and a contagious sense of joy. Through reading “Winning Balance” and talking to her personally, I now know that joy is grounded in a love of God and family, and a determination to do her best as she travels down whatever road God puts her on next. In short, those are qualities that make Shawn a true winner. The athletes in this year’s Olympics should keep her example and wisdom in mind.

To listen to my full interview with Shawn Johnson, click on the podcast link:
Christopher Closeup Podcast – Guests: 1) Shawn Johnson, 2) Scott Wiley (The Lower Lights)

About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.

  • Joe Focciagalupe

    Nike used to dist tshirts for track athletes that said,”Second place is the first loser.”

  • Richard A

    I’d like to be able to review Paul Wylie’s answers to the newscaster just after he was named silver medalist in skating at Albertville. I can’t recollect his exact words, but the sense of it, when asked about being disappointed at not winning the gold (he was kind of a long shot to make the American team) was something like “Are you kidding? I got to go to the Olympics! I even won a medal!” Well, he’s a Christian too, and was older than Shawn Johnson when asked that question, but it really seems that all athletes should try to adopt his attitude toward their sports.

  • Brother Rolf

    Second place i a million times better than those couch potatoes who don’t try at all.

  • Patt

    It seems like our media is always trying to stir up jealousy and hate. To win the silver or bronze is a sideline. The thrill of being at the Olympics and that honor of being considered good enough to qualify and compete– would be PLENTY for most of us.

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  • http://catholiceconomist.wordpress.com Buster Adams

    Sorry, but you don’t win silver. That’s improper English and it’s also incorrect when it comes to competition. There is one who wins, one who shows, and one who places. You can’t win show.

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  • TianaS.Dixon

    I double as a gymnast and a cheerleader. I am VERY competitive. When I used to do other sports such a karate, dance, etc I used to get discouraged all the time about getting second. But, one day when I was younger I realized first isn’t everything. Although it feels like it is as long as I am proud and happy about my accomplishments I have no problem placing second. That is of course unless I feel i deserved better. That is when my competitive nature takes over and I fill with anger. I’m not writing this comment to start controversy, I’m just stating my opinion and sharing some of my experiences. I’m only 15 and I have a lot to learn. Shawn Johnson is one of my biggest role models and my perspective on silver is it’s just a color until you give it meaning.


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