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Shawn Johnson East recalls emotional tightrope of Nastia Liukin rivalry

Shawn Johnson East hugs Nastia Liukin after the 2008 all-around final at the Beijing Olympics. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Shawn Johnson East and Nastia Liukin each went into the 2008 Beijing Olympics with aspirations of winning gold in the gymnastics all-around event. Even as teammates with Team USA, Johnson East and Liukin set out to beat the other in competition.

“That was actually the hardest emotional feeling I’ve ever felt to date in competition because she was my best friend, she was my roommate, she was my teammate, but she was also my biggest competitor,” Johnson East tells Kelley O’Hara on the latest episode of The Players’ Pod.

The all-around final came down to the wire, with Liukin just barely edging out Johnson East for the gold.

“We were the last two competitors in the last event. She went up before me and I saw her score, and I remember just thinking, ‘I don’t want you to fall, but I don’t necessarily want you to do your best,’” Johnson East recalls. “I remember watching her performance and it was just flawless, and I saw her score and I was just like, ‘Can’t beat that.’”

The complex feelings of excitement for her best friend and anguish for herself was difficult for the then-16-year-old to process.

“It was just an interesting feeling of I was so proud of her and I was so happy for her, and I was so heartbroken,” Johnson East says. “It was a really hard thing to navigate as a kid.”

With her Olympic fate sealed, Johnson East still had to perform and try to earn silver.

“I remember going up for my performance, and I was like, OK, the gold is gone … it wasn’t possible even with my best score, a perfect score,” Johnson East says. “I remember having to battle this feeling of, what’s the point now and why do you go out? And all in a split second, I was kind of like ‘OK no, this is actually what I’ve worked for.’”

With the weight of gold off her shoulders, Johnson East said it was “the most fun I felt I’ve ever felt in a competition.”

“My coach had taught me from day one it should never be about an award, it should never be about the medal or the color. It should be about that way you feel,” Johnson says. “I just had a blast. I remember bawling my eyes out by the end of it, and I was like, ‘That was pretty cool.’ I gave my coach the biggest hug and saw a number two by my name, and I was like, ‘Let’s do this silver, alrighty.’”

Listen to the full episode of The Players’ Pod for more on Johnson East’s Olympic journey.