Debt Management

Q&A with Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson


Shawn Johnson became America’s sweetheart when she won a gold and three silvers in gymnastics at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but her greatest balancing act has been keeping her head through the highs and lows of a professional athlete’s life

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Central casting couldn’t have designed a more charismatic sports celebrity than Shawn Johnson, the 4-foot-9-inch blonde dynamo whose gutsy four-medal gymnastics performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics vaulted right off the TV screen and into America’s heart

No sooner had Johnson claimed her balance beam gold medal and three silvers than the pride of Des Moines, Iowa, seemed to be everywhere. She hosted the Miss America pageant, endorsed her “Shawn Johnson Gymnastics” exercise game for the Wii, donned the white “Got Milk?” moustache and did ads for McDonald’s and CoverGirl, and bumped her senior year in high school aside to dance off with the mirror ball trophy on season 8 of “Dancing With the Stars.”

In her memoir, “Winning Balance,” Johnson credits her down-to-earth Midwest upbringing with keeping her grounded  through life’s highs and lows — including a 2009 stalking incident that almost ended her DWTS appearance, and the knee injury from a 2010 skiing accident that cut short her bid to repeat at the London Olympics. The book was released June 5.

Shawn Johnson,
Olympic gold medalist
Shawn Johnson, gymnastic gold medalist, 2008 Beijing Olympics
Shawn Johnson's Winning Balance

“Winning Balance,” a memoir by 20-year-old Shawn Johnson, was released in June 2012. It chronicles the ups and downs of Johnson, whose spirit and four-medal performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics made her an instant celebrity.

Officially retired from competition at 20, Johnson says she hopes to enroll at either Stanford or Vanderbilt in the fall of 2013, barring other opportunities that may come her way. When did you become aware that your life as an athlete would probably be different from your peers?

Shawn Johnson: That started even in elementary school. A lot of it came when I started progressing in gymnastics. I had to start finding a big balance between time spent in the gym and time spent at home, balancing studies and still trying to have a social life and be normal. That was the hardest time for me. Growing up, were you pampered as many other world-class athletes were?

Johnson: Oh, no. My parents did not stand for that. They wanted me to be a normal kid: get in trouble, have chores, go to games and do everything. They didn’t want me to live and breathe becoming a future Olympian. That wasn’t even a thought to them. Was it a thought for you?

Johnson: Not at all. I never even thought that the elite level was a possibility for me, let alone just making it through competitions. Did you handle your own money as a kid?

Johnson: I wasn’t in a position where I had to deal with it on my own. When I started working with sponsors, my parents did everything for me. I come from a very average income family; my dad is a self-employed carpenter, my mom’s an accountant, we live in a cute, small home and we’ve gone through our fair share of very hard times. I’ve kind of been on the outside watching it. I don’t think it’s ever been in my own pocket, but my parents have taught me a lot about just being smart. Did your parents ever have that talk: “You know, Shawn, if this gymnastics thing doesn’t work out … “?

Johnson: Oh, definitely. That’s kind of what my parents’ mentality has been since I started. They never wanted me to devote my entire life to one thing because if that is suddenly gone, then you’re left with nothing. That’s why they had me in all different sports and doing different things at such an early age. They wanted me to have balance. What other sports besides gymnastics would you have pursued?

Johnson: I loved dance and track, so I probably would have stuck with one of those.

My parents … wanted me to be a normal kid: get in trouble, have chores, go to games and do everything. They didn’t want me to live and breathe becoming a future Olympian. That wasn’t even a thought to them. You were already well known by the time you started dating. How awkward was that?

Johnson: Yeah, it was definitely strange. That’s already kind of an awkward stage to go through in your life, not to mention being on a public stage. Anywhere I walked into, the entire restaurant knew exactly who I was — and since I’m from a somewhat small town, they could pretty much guess who the guy was also. I had the whole town talking about my dating life. It also made it scary, too, because you don’t know who’s genuine and who’s just wanting to use you, I guess. What’s this about a credit card fail on your first date?

Johnson: Oh my gosh! (Laughs) It wasn’t like my first date ever, but it was my first date with this guy. We had kind of been just hanging out for awhile, and he had been just overly generous and following all the etiquette rules, I guess, and I wanted it to be, like, my treat. So I said, “You’ll come to my town, I’ll take you to my favorite restaurant, it’s on me,” and of course he was very reluctant, but I finally convinced him. Throughout the whole dinner, I was buying extra desserts and just kind of trying to go over the top trying to impress him, I guess. And time came to pay the bill and, of course, my credit card bounced. I don’t know how or why, but it was so bad! I was mortified! It’s like, now he has to pay for it! Oh, it was awful. Did you manage your own money at that point?

Johnson: I’d never really been able to learn how that whole world worked, so we actually hired a financial manager, who has been a blessing — he’s almost like family. He single-handedly sat me down and taught me how everything works, so I’ve been able to kind of take it into my own hands. Were you prepared for fame and fortune when you won those four medals in Beijing?

It’s extremely difficult, being as this has been my entire life since I was 3 years old. Finally shutting that door and knowing that I’m not coming back to it was a really hard moment.

Johnson: You know, I don’t think anybody can prepare themselves for that. It was definitely an honor, and it’s been a very, I don’t know, a crazy whirlwind — but I love everybody I work with. My parents and my agent have made sure I continue to be tough with who I sign with because they have to be a right fit. How hard was it to retire from gymnastics?

Johnson: It’s extremely difficult, being as this has been my entire life since I was 3 years old. Finally shutting that door and knowing that I’m not coming back to it was a really hard moment, but I just know that it’s for the better and things will work out in the end. What does your next chapter look like?

We’re working on it. This is not the plan and path that I had seen coming or that we had been thinking about this whole time, but now it’s back to the drawing board and just trying to find something new. Might we see you in London, perhaps doing color commentary?

Johnson: Hopefully. I don’t know. I will definitely be at the Olympics; my sponsors have given me multiple opportunities to go for the entire duration and cheer on my teammates and work. We’re still trying to figure out what I’ll be doing exactly. Hopefully commentating. That would be awesome.

See related: Q&A with Phil Collins, Q&A with actor Steve Guttenberg, Does your kid need a financial coach?

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