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.”