Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson East urges MSU students to have fun, follow passions

Contact: Sasha Steinberg

Olympic gymnast and entrepreneur Shawn Johnson East spoke Tuesday [Nov. 1] at Mississippi State University about the importance of hard work and self-confidence in pursuit of one’s passion. (Photo by Beth Wynn)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—For U.S. Olympian and entrepreneur Shawn Johnson East, it’s never been about the titles, endorsements, hype or fame. Her lifelong pursuit of a career as an all-around gymnast always has centered around her love for the sport.

“It was never because I wanted to be an Olympic gold medalist. It was always because it was fun,” Johnson East said during her Tuesday [Nov. 1] evening presentation at Mississippi State.

“When we get weighted down by people’s expectations and the pressure of being perfect, everything goes wrong. But when you resort back to just doing something for you and doing it for the only reason that matters, then things seem to go right,” she said.

At the age of 16, the Des Moines, Iowa, native competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, winning the individual gold medal in the balance beam and three silver medals in the individual all-around, floor exercise and team categories.

Sharing one of her favorite personal stories, Johnson East recalled feelings she experienced prior to her floor exercise performance in the all-around competition. It was the final rotation, and she was the last gymnast to compete.

“I saw my teammate Nastia Liukin’s score pop up, and I knew it was impossible for me to win the gold medal,” Johnson East said. “I remember standing on the floor with this really confusing feeling: ‘If the only thing the world wants and expects of me is to bring home a gold medal and it’s not possible, is it even worth it to go out there?’”

With an encouraging nod from her longtime coach Liang Chow, Johnson East made her way onto the stage.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘If you can’t go out there and win the gold medal, at least go show the world that you deserved it. I decided it didn’t matter what happened because at that moment, the only reason I was walking out there was for myself.”

Johnson East vividly remembers her 90-second routine. She hit all the poses, stuck every landing, and at the end of it all, she felt “like the happiest, lightest, proudest person in the entire world.”

“I was on cloud nine. I was so beyond proud of myself. I put in hundreds of thousands of hours, and this was my moment,” she said. “I did the best I could do, and there wasn’t anything that anyone could say to me in that moment that would have made me feel otherwise.”

Even so, Johnson East recalled later being criticized for her performance during post-competition press conferences and on-air interviews.

“I kept getting asked all of these negative questions on failure, and time after time, people were saying I came up short. It absolutely crushed me because I felt in my heart that I had given everything I possibly could,” she said.

After being reunited with her family and Coach Chow following competition, Johnson East said she felt a renewed sense of pride and accomplishment.

“Coach pulled me aside and asked me the same question he would ask after every competition: ‘How do you feel you did today?’ I said, ‘I thought I did great. I thought I deserved the gold medal.’ And he said, ‘That is all that will ever matter.’”

Since retiring from competitive gymnastics in 2012, Johnson East has been working as a certified trainer for Nike. She also enjoys sharing her expertise with young, aspiring gymnasts.

“Every single person has fear inside them. The people who succeed are those who can put that aside and just go for it,” Johnson East advises. “The world pushes success on kids, but you have to fall in love with something to be successful. Have fun, and the rest will come.”

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.