Shawn Johnson describes battle with eating disorder after the 2008 Olympics: ‘I didn’t feel like I was in control of my brain’
Shawn Johnson is candid about fighting an eating disorder in the pinnacle of her Olympic success.
The gymnast, who achieved world fame when she took home the gold on the balance beam at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, spoke to dinner podcast host Jeremy Fall about how wanting to succeed in her sport pushed her into unhealthy behaviors that led to an eating disorder.
Johnson, who continued her Olympic success by winning Dancing with the stars in 2009, explained: “As a top athlete I thought, ‘What can I do to get an edge? What can I do to get that judge to give me a slightly higher score? What can I do to win that gold medal?’ For me it was like, ‘Oh, they judge by aesthetics. The lighter I am, the higher I flip. The easier it is to flip a beam.” So for me it was math when I started. Let’s eat less, let’s weigh less, it will make your job easier.”
However, after taking home the silver—rather than the gold—in general, Johnson was questioned about how she could have “improved,” greatly hurting her self-esteem.
“It was just negativity,” she said. “It was a failure on the world stage. Internally I felt like there was nothing more I could do. I didn’t know where to go.”
Taking home the gold medal for beam “confirmed” her, but also made her long for that feeling again. Although she eventually took home the Mirrorball Trophy on Dancing with the stars, all she saw was the criticism of her body, which was “going through puberty” at the time.
“The last time I felt respected was in the image of the gold medal bar winner,” Johnson explained. “So I would do everything I could to achieve that.”
The athlete said there are many misconceptions about what it’s like to have an eating disorder, but said for her it was a serious “mental illness” that changed the way she thought.
“I didn’t feel like I was in control of my brain,” she said. “I felt like someone had entered my mind and was literally thinking for me. It was this active effort to push that voice forward. And when you get tired, you can no longer fight it. It’s like ‘Ugh, I have to binge, I have to purge, I must not eat, I have to eat so much.’ And I would just spiral so much. As a person you lose control.”
This isn’t the first time Johnson, who is pregnant with her second child with husband Andrew East, has talked about battling an eating disorder.
Last year she told the Today show that she forced herself to exercise while severely restricting her calories.
“I would pass out during training or after training,” she said on the show. “My body would cramp. I had no energy. I couldn’t get my period. I didn’t grow up.”
Johnson, who retired from gymnastics in 2012 and began her road to recovery that same year with the help of a wellness team, added that she learned a lot from that experience.
“I love that I went through it,” she said. “It was very difficult and I don’t wish it on anyone, but I have had these difficult experiences that have made me a stronger mother who will enable me to teach [my daughter Drew] no matter how strong you can be.”
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