At just 16-years-old, Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson won a gold medal and three silvers in Beijing. She went on to enjoy a dose of reality-TV fame, becoming the youngest winner (and competitor) on Dancing with the Stars, but a knee injury cut her career unexpectedly short. In “Winning Balance,” the retired athlete recounts the ups and downs of her life on and off the mat. Here’s an excerpt. Chapter 1
Other things may change us, but we start and end with family.
The first score I ever received was given on January 19, 1992, at Iowa Lutheran Hospital in Des Moines. I was one minute old when the doctor took me aside to perform the routine Apgar test, a simple examination given to newborns to determine their health at birth. The Apgar—which stands for appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration—evaluates the baby’s muscle tone, heart rate, facial movement, reflexes, and breathing. Based on those factors, the test assigns a score from zero to ten.
After taking medication to prevent premature labor, my mom had anxiously waited for her due date—and then waited some more. Despite fears that I would arrive early, I actually arrived late. When the doctor discovered the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck, he called a neonatal specialist to work on me as soon as I was born. My parents could tell something was wrong by the concerned look on the doctor’s face and the frantic way the nurses were caring for me.
They watched as the specialist worked on me in the corner of the room before telling my parents that they needed to move me to the neonatal nursery. Dad followed the nurses when they whisked me away. He wasn’t going to let me out of his sight. And I wasn’t looking good. The first thing Dad noticed was that my skin looked gray. The doctor said I had been without oxygen for a while, so I wasn’t responding the way a healthy baby should. They put me in an incubator for forty-eight hours so they could monitor my health, and I became more responsive pretty quickly.
Only later, when my parents were going through paperwork, did they see the score of my Apgar test: a big, fat zero.
By that time, though, I’d recovered from my trauma and looked like any other healthy six-pound, nine-ounce newborn. My parents were hoping I’d be strong enough to one day run and play like other kids, but they had no idea that the nearly seven-pound bundle of joy they were holding was a future Olympic champion.
After all, even if I’d had an easy birth, there was no reason to believe I’d be particularly athletic. Dad played hockey and wrestled in school, but Mom never participated in organized sports. She did gymnastics recreationally but never competed. However, both Mom and Dad roller-skated, which is what brought them together. They met when they were only thirteen years old at a roller rink in a small Iowa town. Maybe it was the romantic music playing over the loudspeaker or maybe it was just destiny, but soon they were skating hand in hand around that rink.
They saw each other around town whenever possible, even though they didn’t attend the same school. Because her family moved several times, Mom attended three different high schools in the area. Yet Dad was a constant in her life. Mom had a little motorbike, which she would ride four miles to see him. They also sat together at football games, and Mom started going to Dad’s wrestling matches. In 1977, they decided to get married two weeks after Mom graduated from high school. Because she was just seventeen, she had to get her parents’ permission. Needless to say, their engagement raised eyebrows around town. The fact that I didn’t show up until fifteen years later quieted the rumors.
In the meantime, Dad went to work for a construction company, learning to frame and then becoming especially skilled at interior trim work. Several years before I was born, he and his brother started their own contracting business. Mom, who had grown up helping her mom keep the records for her stepdad’s business, continued working in bookkeeping and accounting.
Growing up, Mom’s family had moved around a lot, so once she was married, she worked hard to create a warm, welcoming home with my dad. Not long after they married, they got a dog, the first of several family pets. Dude, their first golden retriever, arrived just about a year before I did. He would become one of my first playmates.
Once Mom was pregnant, they talked about choosing the perfect name. They loved “Shawn,” which was going to be my name whether I was a girl or a boy. If I’d been a boy, I would have been Shaun Douglas, after my dad. However, since I was a girl, I was named Shawn Machel (pronounced like the traditional spelling “Michelle”) after my mother, Teri Machel Johnson. I used to hate my name because the kids at school thought it was a boy’s name. However, I’ve grown to love its strength, uniqueness, and meaning: God is gracious.
By the time we left the hospital, my parents had the healthy newborn they’d waited so long for. Though they were certainly ready to welcome a baby, Mom was a little afraid. I seemed so delicate and tiny. When she gave me a bath, she was more hesitant than if she had been washing fine china. When she changed my diaper, she was worried she’d hurt me.
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That’s how Dad ended up doing a lot of the bathing and the feeding when we first came home from the hospital. After working all day doing trim work, he would come home and immediately bathe, feed, and take care of me until bedtime. This might explain why I’m such a daddy’s girl even to this day.
Once when I was still a baby, I was lying on the couch when Dude, who had just noticed movement outside the window, jumped on top of me to get a closer look. Mom was convinced that I’d punctured my lungs and frantically called the doctor.
“Well,” he asked, “is she breathing?”
“Yes,” my mom replied.
“Then,” he assured her, “she’s going to be just fine.”
After a few months, Mom learned I wasn’t nearly as breakable as she thought. She found that my arms could actually be raised and bent to fit into my tiny clothes. My head survived, even when she stretched the opening of a shirt to fit around it. Bathing me and changing my diaper now came naturally . . . no matter how much I wriggled.
And—wow—did I wriggle.
In fact, by the time I was about six months old, my mom began noticing that when I eyed something, I was so determined to get it that I rolled sideways until I could reach it. 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.
I never slowed down after that. Once, I crawled up on the kitchen counter to try skydiving. (Hey, I was little . . . so the counter seemed as high as the sky to me back then.) When I landed, my teeth went through my bottom lip, and there was blood everywhere. But that injury didn’t stop me for long. As a toddler, I would pile all of my toys on the floor as a makeshift ladder to reach the top of our entertainment center. From there, I’d jump onto the red leather couch, pretending it was a trampoline.
Even more fun than trying these daredevil tricks myself was urging my cousin, Tori, to do them with me. Tori, the daughter of my mom’s sister, is two years older than I am and a bit more cautious. I had to talk her into doing flips over our couch. When she stayed over on Saturday nights, we’d sleep in the bunk beds in our basement. I loved to do flips and pull-ups on them, as well as hang from the bars. At first Tori just watched, but before long she was doing them with me.
Tori and I also loved to play outdoors. Sometimes we dressed up and acted out stories; other times we would take turns tying a rope around our waists and pulling each other in a wagon. Since I was smaller and younger than Tori, I’d also jump on her back and let her carry me around.
I’m an only child and Tori’s brother is eight years older, so I guess it’s not surprising that we not only played like sisters—we also fought like them. I admit I was usually the instigator. When we’d be playing in the basement, occasionally I’d hit her lightly, waiting for her to respond. Almost always, she’d give me a funny look and keep playing. But I’d go running upstairs, crying that Tori had hit me. Though she was the one who got in trouble, she never held it against me.Video: Natalie tries gymnastics at Olympic training center
Tori also joined me in my first tumbling and dancing classes. Because I was so physically active, Mom decided she needed to find an outlet for all of my energy. Even though Tori went with me, I had no desire to continue either of those activities. So my mom took me to a local gymnastics center and signed me up. It’s not that she was particularly fond of the sport. She just knew that I needed a large, open (and soft!) place to play. And I loved it. Even though the coaches were very strict, I enjoyed tumbling and running and always had a smile on my face while I was there. For three years, I happily went to the gym at least once a week. My coach told my mom that I was full of energy, but not full of talent.
Then Mom heard about a new gym that was closer to our home. One day after dropping me off at my gymnastics class, Mom drove to that facility and watched a class through the windows. She was struck by how happy all the young gymnasts appeared and how much fun they seemed to be having. She never imagined that she was staring at my future.
Lesson I’ve Learned
Even if you fly high in life, stay grounded. From the time I was very small, my parents supported my daring ventures out into the world, while making home a place I always wanted to come back to.
Excerpted from Winning Balance by Shawn Johnson. Copyright © 2012 by Shawn Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale Momentum. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive