The 2015 SHU Speaks event took place in the Jubilee Auditorium on March 31 when Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson spoke to students and staff about three defining moments in her life.
Johnson competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She won a gold medal on the balance beam and silver medals for team, allaround and floor exercises. Johnson began gymnastics at just three years old and trained throughout most of her life to gain a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
“The sacrificing was a lot, especially as a young adult. Learning to make sacrifices for a bigger picture was a very good lesson that I learned,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t the person that could go to every slumber party and stay after school, but I got my fair share of experiences and in exchange I got to travel the world.”
After retiring from gymnastics, Johnson went on to write her book “Winning Balance: What I’ve Learned So Far about Love, Faith, and Living Your Dreams” and placed second in the TV competition Dancing with the Stars.
Johnson is currently pursuing her education at Penn State University.
“I can relate to students because I’m in their shoes. I’m their same age and we do the same things. Yes, I’ve had some different experiences, but I’m also just a normal every day kid as well.” Johnson said.
Haley Zenna, a freshman occupational therapy major, said that since “Johnson is in college herself so it was very easy to relate to another college student, especially one who is so personable.”
During the SHU Speaks event, Johnson described three critical moments in her life. The first was when she was in elementary school. She said that she was very shy and was a major tomboy. Then one day she finally decided to be brave.
“This is the day that I’m going to go to recess and ask the popular girls if I could be in their circle of friends…” Johnson recalled telling herself. “I walked up to one of the girls that I knew, Mary. I asked her if it was possible if I could be in their group.”
Johnson said that the girls voted on whether or not they wanted her to be friends with them and they ultimately voted ‘no.’
This caused Johnson to become extremely upset and think that her “life was over.”
Johnson said that her mother turned to her and said “Being unique and being who you are is the best thing you can do. So not being in that group is a good thing.”
The lesson that Johnson learned was that “embracing uniqueness is one of the greatest things you can do.”
Johnson also spoke of her time in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Throughout her entire gymnastics career, Johnson had been told by her coach to never look at the scoreboard until after she had already competed.
Johnson had been determined as “the one to beat” during the Olympics and she was going up against her competitor Nastia Liukin. Although Johnson had gone her entire career without looking at the scoreboard, she suddenly had the urge to do it during the most important time in her career. Johnson said that Liukin went first during the floor exercise before her turn.
“With her score that came up, it was impossible for me to win a gold medal. Before I even went out to do my routine, the entire world knew ‘She has failed to get the gold medal.’” Johnson said.
Johnson said that she did not even know whether she should compete if she already knew she was not going to win the gold, but she said to herself “If you can’t get the gold medal at least go out to the world and prove that you deserved it.”
“I wasn’t competing for the world; I had already failed them in my mind. Not for my country, not for my family or friends. I was just competing for me,” Johnson said. “What my coach taught me, it was never about a score or a medal. It was about how hard you worked and the effort that you put out on the competition floor.”
The lesson Johnson learned was “There’s no reward, no medal, nothing in the world that can give you more justification or pride than what you feel in your heart.”
Johnson also touched on retiring from gymnastics at 22 years old. She was training to be on the 2012 Olympic team, but she felt that her heart was no longer in the sport. She said that she was training for all of the wrong reasons and no longer had the same passion for gymnastics, but was only continuing because of her sponsors.
“I remember walking into the gym just exhausted, mentally and physically. I had all of these things that people dreamed of… I got warmed up, standing at the end of the beam, looking down, and I felt like the entire weight of the world was lifted off of me,” Johnson said. “I remember jumping off the beam, walking over to my coach and saying ‘I’m done, I’m leaving’ I remember walking straight out of the gym and within 12 hours I was no longer competing for a spot on the Olympic team.”
The lesson that Johnson learned in this moment was “don’t try to force anything or do things for other people. Don’t do anything for the wrong reasons. I was on the wrong path that wasn’t true to my heart and when I got back on my path my life became better. Follow your own path and stay true to your heart.”
“The lesson that most impacted me was that she had to do things for herself,” Zenna said. “She said she is a people pleaser, but when she knew she couldn’t do the Olympics again, she retired for her own benefit. She told us to do what we’re passionate about. If you love what you do and do it only for yourself, then you’ll be happy.”
Johnson said she hopes that students learned from the SHU Speaks event that nothing is impossible.
Ashley Turner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.