Shawn Johnson East recently opened up about how life as an elite athlete put her on a dangerous path to perfectionism outside of competition, leading her to develop an eating disorder and to take prescription medication to push her back towards what she once saw as her personal peak.
And while that path was a painful one, she now believes it had a purpose.
As the 28-year-old former Olympic gymnast explained during a Monday interview on the 3rd hour of TODAY, she not only learned valuable life lessons in all of that, she learned lessons she can pass on to her 8-month-old daughter, Drew, too.
“I mean, it all started out with, ‘What do I want to teach my daughter?’” she explained of her decision to speak candidly about her experience. “And I want to be the mom that teaches her through my mistakes.”
The decision actually began before that, when she was still pregnant.
“For me, I just felt like it all started with pregnancy and having my daughter,” she recalled. “I had so many people asking me questions. ‘How did pregnancy affect you mentally?’ and ‘How did you get your body back after having your daughter?’ And I couldn’t answer that without giving a greater and a larger story.”
Motherhood, she said, has left her feeling “so purposeful” that she knew that by speaking about her past 700-calorie a day diet or Adderall use, in contrast to where she is today, she could “share with people that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
As for what left her in such a dark place to begin with, Johnson points to one of the highlights of her life.
“After the 2008 Olympics, I always explain it as I felt like I ran straight into a brick wall at full speed, just because, as an elite athlete, every single decision you make on a daily basis revolves around your goal.”
And in order to earn gold for Team USA, she never compromised.
“That means what you eat, how you think, who you hang out with, when you wake up, when you set your alarm — everything,” she said. “And when that was over, I didn’t know how to operate as a human being. I felt lost, and so I felt like, if I went back to the Olympics, even though I had no desire to do gymnastics again, I felt like I might get that purpose back.”
So she trained, returned to the game, endured another round of Olympic trials and put herself back on the path to perfection. But she still felt lost.
“I remember hitting my breaking point going into practice one day, and I was just like, ‘What am I doing with my life? I feel miserable. I’m arguing with my parents and my loved ones and my coaches,’” Johnson remembered. “I knew something was off, and I had to quit. I had to start this journey of finding purpose outside of my sport, even though I knew I didn’t know how to find it.”
One purpose she was certain of was starting a family with husband Andrew East, but that didn’t go as planned at first. She suffered a miscarriage and blamed herself.
“I remember looking back, when I miscarried, at every decision I made in my life, and I feel like as an athlete, and just as a woman who goes through something that traumatic, our natural inclination is to say, ‘What did I do?’ and ‘What did I do wrong?’ and ‘This was my fault, I should have been able to take care of this child, and I didn’t,’” Johnson explained. “I just immediately starting having these doubts and regrets that it was probably from the weight loss pills, it was probably from doing things too extreme, that my body now can’t become a mom, which was my ultimate dream and goal. It haunted me. I felt like I had sacrificed everything for an Olympic medal (and then) to not actually get the dream I had wanted my entire life.”
But eventually that dream came true with Drew, and it brought with it a new hope.
And that’s the message she want to impart on her little girl, that no matter where you are, you can always get back on track — and that your life can always serve as a lesson to yourself and others.
“I feel like that’s the only way I can look back and not regret everything,” Johnson said. “Just knowing that I did it for a purpose, and I can teach her to be stronger and better and to overcome these challenges.”
But she has a broader message, too.
“For everyone, including my daughter, you’re not alone,” she added. “We are human, we go through so many things, we make mistakes, we make choices that can send us down the wrong path, but we can always work together to come back.