Gymnast Shawn Johnson Reflects on Her Olympic Experience

Champion U.S. gymnast Shawn Johnson competes at the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. 

The 2024 Summer Olympic Games will begin on July 26 in Paris, France. More than 10,000 athletes from 206 countries will compete in the Games, which will conclude on August 11. A total of 329 events will spotlight 32 different sports. 

The sports range widely, from archery and golf to swimming and diving to volleyball and skateboarding. The women’s symnastics competition is a favorite among viewers in the United States, including this reporter. 

To better understand what it feels like to compete in the Games, I spoke with Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson. Johnson won four Olympic medals, including a gold medal, at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

Johnson, who competed in several events for the U.S. team, won gold for her performance on the balance beam. One of the most decorated gymnasts in U.S. history, she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2019.

“My favorite event was balance beam," Johnson told me in a conversation via video. “It made me feel superhuman flipping off of a 4-inch beam.”

Johnson emphasized the camaraderie she felt competing with her teammates. “Being able to compete at the Olympic Games with some of my best friends,” she said, is what she loved most. “My teammates were like my sisters.”


Evy talks with Hall of Fame gymnast Shawn Johnson via video. 


Johnson said that competing on the international stage can be overwhelming in the moment. What does she know now that she wished she knew in Beijing in 2008? “If I could go back and tell myself anything at age 16, it would be to truly remember that I love it, and I was there because I had fun,” she said. “Today, in society, we put a lot of pressure on kids and on athletes to focus on success over passion. I had such an amazing coach throughout my career who encouraged me to truly love my sport more than anything else.”

In 2009, Johnson was named “America’s most liked sports figure” by Forbes magazine. When asked what athletes of all ages could do to be a bit more likable, she said, “I loved my sport and wanted to be there because I loved it, not because I wanted to win over everything else.”

During her years as a competitive gymnast, Johnson kept the focus on her own performance. “I was always competing against myself, even at the Olympics,” she said. “I didn’t see that I was competing against other athletes. I was competing against my [own] best. That allowed me to go out there and have fun. I think that resonated with people watching on TV.”


More than 10,000 athletes from 206 countries will compete for gold, silver, and bronze at the Olympic Games in Paris this summer. A piece of iron from the Eiffel Tower is set in each medal, which features Nike, the goddess of victory, carrying the Olympic torch.

Photos top to bottom: © Julian Finney / Staff; Getty Images; courtesy of the author; Paris 2024