Shawn Johnson East on gymnastics retirement: ‘People were mad’

Johnson East practices on the balance beam at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Gold medalist Shawn Johnson East retired from gymnastics at the young age of 20 after one of the most prolific careers in the sport.

When the time came for Johnson East to exit the sport, she grappled with the emotions of leaving the mat.

“It was the hardest decision. I think the reason why it was so hard, I couldn’t get past the feeling of retirement feeling like quitting,” Johnson East tells Kelley O’Hara on the latest episode of The Players’ Pod.

Johnson East was in the middle of an impressive comeback after tearing her ACL on a ski trip for her 18th birthday. A year and a half later, she was on her way to making her second Olympic team but still dealing with a nagging sense of uncertainty.

“I was struggling a lot mentally with the doubt. I doubted myself a lot,” Johnson East tells O’Hara. “More than anything, I just lost the heart for it. I tried to fight that feeling for so long, but day in and day out going to practice, I just hated it.”

Many within her inner circle expected her to make another Olympic run and were surprised she was ready to walk away. “It caused a lot of tension. People were mad,” Johnson East recalls.

Another factor in her retirement decision was the way Team USA ran its gymnastics program.

“I was butting heads with a lot of people within the organization, and my body was just different that time,” she says. “Gymnastics has come a very, very long way, but especially back then, it was still this mindset of survival of the fittest, and they would just run us into the ground and my body at that time was not able to train that way anymore.”

Johnson East eventually grew exhausted fighting the institution and pushing her body to a dangerous limit.

“I could perform really well if I had that freedom to do it as I needed, and that’s just not how the program operated,” she says. “So I butted heads with the leaders of that organization a lot, and it got to a point where I was just fighting them so much that it just wasn’t worth it. I knew that if I went under their guidelines that I was going to break, and I knew it just wasn’t my time anymore.”

Once Johnson East made her decision, she had to notify all the entities that supported her. It was a stressful task, but she knew she was up for it if it meant she could listen to her heart and her body.

“I had to call all of my partners and sponsors and literally hand back agreements and money,” she says. “It was major damage control, and I felt bad doing that, but I felt so free doing that.

“I felt like I was on top of the world.”

Listen to the full episode of The Players’ Pod for more on Johnson East’s decision to leave gymnastics.