The Transformation Of Shawn Johnson From Toddler To 29

The following article includes mentions of depression, eating disorders, and sexual abuse.

Olympic silver and gold medalist Shawn Johnson East is a wife, mother, author, speaker, YouTuber, and entrepreneur. It's obvious that she's accomplished a great deal in 29 years. The star gymnast committed to her sport from a young age and leapt across the floor, vault, beam, and bars with bountiful strength and energy. She worked hard on her skills in her hometown of West Des Moines, Iowa, and with great parenting and coaching, Johnson shined in her competitions and became a favorite for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. 

Her gradual exit from competitive gymnastics opened the door for dreams and decisions a young Shawn Johnson might never have imagined. The star recalled on the "Dinner Party with Jeremy Fall" podcast, "I wanted to be a doctor. My dream in life was to be an orthopedic surgeon, to go to Stanford University, and that was kind of my plan." Johnson continued, "After the Olympics were over, I got thrown into the spotlight, which I was not prepared for. You have to understand that I was a 16-year-old child ... I hadn't seen a lot of the world, because I had spent so much of my life in a gym."

The former Olympian has since branched into many arenas. She's a true celebrity with a desire to give back, and the philanthropist has worked with Children's Miracle Network for many years (via Parents) and is on the Character Counts advisory council, per her website. So, how has Shawn Johnson transformed from her gymnastics days to a thriving adulthood?

Shawn Johnson was a little 'daredevil'

Shawn Johnson was destined to be a gymnast. It seems that way according to her early childhood, anyway. Her dad was a hockey player and wrestler, her mom had been a recreational gymnast, and both parents were roller-skaters. Shawn Johnson's baby years were a sign: "I completely skipped the crawling stage. When I was nine months old, my parents looked up one day to see me toddling into their room, grinning from ear to ear. I had flipped out of my crib and sauntered to their bedroom. They had no idea how I'd learned to walk," she wrote in her book, "Winning Balance: What I've Learned So Far About Love, Faith, and Living Your Dreams."

Johnson's Olympian spirit further manifested itself in her toddler years, even to the point of "daredevil tricks" and accidents, she explained in her book. Her mother, Teri Johnson, sought out "an outlet for all of [Shawn's] energy," so the rambunctious tot went to dancing and tumbling class with her cousin, Tori. When that didn't work out, Teri put Shawn in a gymnastics program. Shawn "loved it," writing in "Winning Balance," "Even though the coaches were very strict, I enjoyed tumbling and running and always had a smile on my face while I was there." The young gymnast practiced weekly at the first gymnastics center, but then Teri Johnson found Chow's Gymnastics and Dance Institute. Shawn was "hanging on the uneven bars like a monkey" shortly after she started there.

Chow's Gym was perfect for the aspiring gymnast

Liang Chow's philosophy allowed Shawn Johnson to have fun while she discovered her gymnastics talent. "He always claimed that no coach can look at a kid when she is six and determine whether she'll be a champion," Johnson recalled in "Winning Balance." She added, "He considered my desire to be in motion a benefit, and he focused on teaching me how to concentrate when it really mattered. At the same time, he made sure that I — and all his gymnasts — had plenty of space and time to master new skills." 

As she increased her commitment to gymnastics, Johnson started kindergarten at Westridge Elementary in her hometown. She loved going to school each day and spent more and more afternoons at the gym as she grew. The aspiring gymnast reached level five and became eligible to compete at seven years old, per Chow's rules. As adorable and energetic as Johnson was, however, she didn't make the highest marks. Still, she pressed on and advanced to the next level, which was more suited to the "physical power" Johnson possessed. 

"I wanted to win, and I wanted to be just like everyone else," Johnson wrote in "Winning Balance." She certainly had a more demanding schedule than her peers, spending four hours at Chow's every day after school, adding, "I was usually the last athlete to leave the gym each evening, simply because I always wanted one more chance to get a skill right."

Shawn Johnson was inspired by Carly Patterson

Shawn Johnson was 12 years old when she hit level 10 and won the balance beam portion of the Women's Junior National Championships. By placing fourth overall, the young gymnast earned "an invitation to attend the National Junior Camp at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs later that summer," she wrote in "Winning Balance." While at National Junior Camp, Johnson tuned in to the 2004 Olympics, and was inspired by Carly Patterson, the gold medalist of the all-around. 

"One day, I want to be right there. On the podium, representing America and wearing a gold medal," Johnson thought (via "Winning Balance"). She qualified for the elite level and was on the right track to Olympic greatness. Coach Chow sent Martha Karolyi a letter and a videotape of Johnson, which landed her a spot at the Karolyis' Texas ranch for training camp.

Next came the 2005 US Classic in Virginia Beach, where Johnson "placed third in the all-around" and qualified for the Visa National Championships, she recalled in "Winning Balance." At the Visa National Championships, the gymnast came in 10th place, which was enough for her to make the junior national team of USA Gymnastics and compete in Belgium. There at the Top Gym meet, she was the champion of floor, vault, and the all-around. She returned to the Visa Championships in 2006 and won the all-around. Mary Lou Retton, a gymnastics champion Shawn Johnson admired, presented her with her medal.

She was 15 when she made the US Women's Team at the senior level

After so many successes in a short time, Shawn Johnson reached even higher. After the young gymnast won the Tyson American Cup all-around, Sheryl Shade became her agent, per "Winning Balance." At 15 years old, Johnson was deemed a senior competitor. She was the all-around champion at the Pan American Games and the Visa National Championships in 2007, the latter qualifying her to compete at Worlds. Johnson and her teammates went to Stuttgart, Germany for the World Gymnastics Championships. There, she won a gold medal for her floor routine and the all-around and received the Longines Prize for Elegance, not to mention a gold with her team.

A shin stress fracture temporarily paused Johnson's training, but she was still on the path to the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing. She was the floor exercise and all-around champion at Nationals in 2008, and she worked hard throughout the Olympic Trials. With her all-around win at Trials, Johnson "automatically qualified for the US Olympic Team. I was absolutely thrilled," she wrote in "Winning Balance." She continued, "After all of the training I had done and my performance in Philadelphia, I could finally say, 'I am an Olympic athlete.'" 

Then, Shawn Johnson found out that she and Nastia Liukin would still have to compete for their spots on the team, despite their previous wins. They made it through the selection process at the Karolyis' ranch and headed to Beijing.

Shawn Johnson earned her Olympic victories at 16

"I can remember every detail about Beijing, the smell, the lights, the crowd," Shawn Johnson said in the film, "I Am Second." Winning the silver in the all-around brought mixed emotions for Johnson, who performed at her best, knowing she couldn't mathematically reach the score she needed. She continued, "Every news article in the entire world said that I was gonna come home with four Olympic gold medals, and I'd given 200 percent that day in competition and laid it out on the floor, but I felt like I had failed the world." Johnson felt as if the world viewed her only as a gymnast, which amplified her perceived feelings of failure as "a human being."

An unexpected text message helped Johnson through the complexities of her feelings, as she outlined in her book, "Winning Balance." Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan told the young gymnast, "Hi, Shawn! I just wanted to say everybody is so proud of you. People love you, not because of the color of your medals but because of your amazing attitude, great spirit, and kicking talent. Keep your head up high and smile. Everyone loves you." 

Shawn Johnson took the text to heart and thought, "There's someone who understands how I feel," knowing that Kwan had also been a silver medalist. Johnson took home two more silvers for team and floor, and she won the gold for her balance beam routine. What was in store for her life after the Games?

The former gymnast won Dancing with the Stars

Post-Olympics life was a big adjustment for this gymnast. "I quickly realized I had a self-confidence and self-image issue of, if I couldn't maintain perfection, I would go to any and all costs to achieve it," Shawn Johnson explained on YouTube in 2020. She discussed her restrictive and disordered eating as an Olympian and said she "didn't know how to handle" post-Olympic weight gain that was "actually healthy and normal" for her body. Johnson turned to "weight loss pills," "Excedrin," and "Adderall," and experienced a "dark spiral" with depression — and moving into this new chapter felt like "run[ning] straight into a brick wall, full-speed."

"Dancing with the Stars" offered a fresh opportunity for Shawn Johnson. At 17, she was the show's youngest competitor up to that point. She even had to have an adult with her at all times, so Teri Johnson moved out to Los Angeles with her daughter for the duration of the competition. In "Winning Balance," Shawn detailed the highs and lows of her experience. The gymnast excelled on the dance floor. Upon nailing a salsa routine with her partner, Mark Ballas, Shawn "felt more confident, more alive," she wrote, before adding, "almost like I could do anything after making it through that dance." But just as the star dancer was rejoicing in her success, she learned that a stalker had driven from Florida to California to kill or kidnap her. 

With a bodyguard and heightened security, she finished her season on "DWTS" and won the mirror ball trophy she deserved. In this endeavor, too, Shawn Johnson was a champion.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

Shawn Johnson faced a knee injury before turning 18

Shawn Johnson started off 2010 with a mixed bag of joys and setbacks. As excited as she was for a ski trip with family and friends, Johnson was met with an unfortunate fate on the slopes. Two years later, she wrote an ESPNW blog post, in which she detailed her skiing injury, explaining how she tore her ACL, meniscus, and MCL when she fell and "rolled over [her] knee." The athlete had surgery on her ACL but tore her MCL again later on. The injuries would mean physical therapy and more than one surgery for Johnson over time, including a knee operation that "truly changed [her] life," she wrote on Instagram.

The former Olympian was also selected by Coca-Cola to carry the torch for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics on her birthday, shortly after the ski trip. USA Gymnastics reported that Johnson helped "move the torch through Calgary, Canada, on its way to Vancouver where it will light the cauldron to mark the start of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games."

"Holding that torch up high as I made my way past the cheering crowd definitely ranks as one of my favorite Olympic memories," Johnson wrote in "Winning Balance."

She trained for the 2012 Olympics

Shawn Johnson announced her gymnastics comeback in 2010 while visiting an elementary school in her hometown (via K5). She also spoke with ESPNW in 2011 about returning to gymnastics: "I realized one day that I really, really missed it. I missed being considered an athlete and having that competitive drive, and missed having something to work for every day. I'd taken two and a half years away from the sport and was out of shape." Johnson continued, "I wanted to get back to where I was in 2008. I wanted to feel the pride that comes from competing for your country, and I wanted to hopefully go back to the Olympics and experience that whole Olympic feeling again." 

While recovering from her knee injury, Johnson rebuilt her skills and rejoined Team USA. As "the oldest American on the team," she took on a motherly role, giving encouragement and advice to the younger gymnasts, she explained in "Winning Balance." Johnson would go on to take home a gold medal with her team and win the silver for the uneven bars at the Pan American Games in 2011. 

The gymnast also took the initiative to help schoolchildren during this time by introducing the Shawn Johnson Fitness for Life Act, which aimed to "combat childhood obesity by promoting the use of innovative technology to improve physical education programs in schools."

Shawn Johnson retired at age 20 before the London Games

As Shawn Johnson struggled with her injury and her gymnast identity, she wrote for ESPNW, "I had hesitated to return to elite gymnastics after the 2008 Olympics. I told myself I had already accomplished so much, and the road was just going to get harder if I continued. It might have been easier to retire, to say my knee couldn't handle it and let that be that. At the same time, the prospect of not being able to compete in gymnastics anymore was heartbreaking." Johnson definitely had the "determination to return to the highest level of gymnastics and compete well," but she was also allowed to change her mind.

While Johnson wanted to press on toward London, her knee injury was prohibitive, and her perspective shifted. "There were a lot of things that kind of weighed me down the second time around, which caused me to officially retire from gymnastics and not go back ... It was just a very corrupt system, which we've seen a lot of it come to light these days," she said on YouTube in 2018. Johnson said she was like a "broken wannabe" of her former "16-year-old self" since she was returning to the sport at 19, and ultimately felt she was disrespected and "misguided."

Johnson retired from gymnastics in June 2012. "My sanity, my health, my pride, my confidence, I finally got it back and I felt good about myself, and I was like, 'I'm not gonna let you take it from me,'" she explained in her YouTube video

She bounced back with purpose

Shawn Johnson made the right choice for her life and wellbeing, but she didn't leave the gymnastics world entirely. Johnson worked for Today as its "special correspondent" for the 2012 Olympics in London. She had briefly dated cyclist Taylor Phinney and went to watch him race at the Games as a friend. Sitting next to her was Guy East, her future brother-in-law, who set Johnson up with Andrew East.

Andrew East struck up a conversation with Johnson on Twitter, then they started texting. "I was just getting out of a four-year relationship," Johnson explained on YouTube in 2018. She and her ex-boyfriend had gotten into an argument and parted ways — and Johnson spontaneously invited the Nashville-based Andrew out to Los Angeles, where she lived, and he was soon on the way. The rest, as they say, is history (but more on all of that below).

Meanwhile, harkening back to 2008, "Dancing with the Stars" called up Shawn Johnson to invite her to compete in "Dancing with the Stars: All Stars." She danced with Derek Hough in the 2012 competition and took second place. In an interview for the Team USA website, Johnson was asked how her background helped her dancing. "I honestly don't think it helps at all," she said. "It gave me that athletic ability of being driven and having to work for something and being disciplined, but it's completely different in the movement side of it where it's really graceful and smooth and you're not serious. I feel like I have to fight my gymnastics habits a lot."

The former Olympic gymnast gave love a chance in 2013

It took Shawn Johnson some time to open her heart to Andrew East, and not before she dated one of his teammates, as she revealed on YouTube in 2018. East was a college student playing football for Vanderbilt University at the time. He and Johnson tried making plans to reconnect at various points, but they kept missing each other, seemingly because the admittedly nervous Johnson wasn't as responsive. But the two of them finally got together for a date in Indianapolis, East's hometown, when Johnson was a grand marshal at the Indy 500. At this point, Andrew East decided to "persevere" and kept after the gymnast. 

The future couple had a second date at the CMA Fest in Nashville, and spent some lake time with the East family, as they explained in another relationship-centered YouTube video. Johnson didn't know the whole crew would be there, but once she spent time with them, she knew she "wanted to be part of the family." Aww.

After that trip — and against the odds of her busy schedule — Johnson was Andrew's date to his brother, Guy East's, wedding for date No. 3. "It had only been two dates, but — I hadn't said it or anything — but I was in love with him," Johnson admitted. East, of course, felt the same way, saying of their surprisingly serious third date, "I decided that you were gonna be my girl ... So, why wouldn't I invite you to my brother's wedding?"

Andrew East popped the question in 2015

Andrew East and Shawn Johnson continued to develop their relationship, first long-distance and then in the same town. The former Olympian conveniently moved to Nashville, Tennessee and enrolled in classes at Vanderbilt University. However, she changed her plans and withdrew before the semester for "Celebrity Apprentice." But that didn't stop her from attending East's football games. As Johnson told Vanderbilt University News a few years later, "It has been very special to be a part of the Vanderbilt and Nashville communities," adding that she "was welcomed with open arms."

In 2015, Andrew East proposed to Shawn Johnson after she and Alicia Sacramone threw out the first pitch for a Chicago Cubs game — right there on Wrigley Field (via Cut4). The following year, the Easts said "I do" at a Franklin, Tennessee farm. In the couple's first year of marriage, Andrew played in the NFL for the Oakland Raiders while Shawn maintained a busy schedule (including commentating at the Rio Olympics that summer and embarking on a subsequent Team USA tour). 

"I love him more every single day," newlywed Shawn Johnson East told People in 2017. She continued, "The first year is the hardest and best year of your life!"

Inside Shawn Johnson East's road to motherhood

Shawn Johnson East became pregnant in October 2017. She and husband Andrew East detailed their story in a YouTube video titled "pregnancy + heartbreak," revealing how soon after celebrating the pregnancy, they learned that Shawn had miscarried. She told Glamour magazine, "When we'd shared our miscarriage story, I felt this frustration: Why aren't these feelings of insecurity and shame talked about more? Why do women feel like they have to keep it hidden?"

The following year, Shawn Johnson East made headlines when she spoke out on YouTube against USA Gymnastics' handling of sexual abuse. "USA Gymnastics has failed, as a governing body, to protect the athletes that it supports and claims to care about," she said, expressing her "love" for the girls she "grew up with," who had to face their abuser and former team doctor, Larry Nassar. Johnson East stood in solidarity with her fellow gymnasts and said, "I can't even trust USA Gymnastics," as she called for change.

By 2019, Johnson East became pregnant again and was in good spirits, even after breaking her toe at 38 weeks (via People). The Easts welcomed a baby girl that November. The proud mom wanted to deliver their daughter, Drew Hazel East, naturally, but went through "22 hours of labor to end in a c section," she stated on Instagram. Recognizing that having her daughter safely was what mattered, Johnson East wrote that what she felt for the couple's new addition was "a love that no one could ever prepare you for."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Another baby for Shawn Johnson East's happy family

Shawn Johnson East and husband Andrew East announced the former gymnast's subsequent pregnancy in January 2021. Both Shawn and Andrew later tested positive for COVID-19 not long after she became pregnant. Around this time, Shawn wrote in part on her Instagram Stories (via People), "Praying so hard for all of those babies out there tonight (sappy mama here) and everyone fighting for their health." 

Thankfully, the couple recovered in plenty of time and had welcomed a baby boy in July 2021. Their first Instagram announcement was reportedly on the page for their toy shop, Teddy and Bear. Per Good Morning America, the Easts' Instagram Stories read, "We're so excited to announce a new friend is here! Mom and baby are doing well, and we can't wait to meet our new friend."

In an Olympics-themed episode of their "Couple Things" podcast, Shawn Johnson East shared that she and Andrew were supposed to attend the Tokyo Games in 2021. But obviously, the International Gymnastics Hall of Famer couldn't fly to Tokyo with a baby on the way. "It's a sore subject," Andrew said. However, as Shawn responded, "It is, but we got little man instead, which is such a blessing."