Shawn Johnson Talks Diet, Body Image, and Being a 6-Year-Old with a 6-Pack

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Shawn Johnson opened up about her life on a podcast. (Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images)

You may remember her best as the plucky, 16-year-old gymnast who nabbed the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics for balance beam. Or perhaps you recall her victorious turn alongside Mark Ballas on Dancing with the Stars in 2009 — or as a contestant on The Apprentice last year. However you recognize the name Shawn Johnson, there’s no arguing she’s made herself an American sweetheart. And this summer, at the ripe old age of 24, Johnson is returning to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — not to compete, but to commentate and interview athletes.

And that’s not all this champion has brewing. For one, she’s newly married to football player Andrew East of the Oakland Raiders. “We didn’t know what to do for our first dance,” the DWTS winner admits. “Honestly when it came down to it we both decided we were going to go super cheesy and traditional and enjoy the moment together. It was nothing impressive at all.” She also released a novel this year, The Flip Side — her third book to date.

But Johnson’s path hasn’t always been paved with gold. She joined the hosts of the Hollywood Life podcast recently to talk about the struggles she endured during her grueling years as an amateur gymnast since the age of three — and as a loner in the schoolyard. “I was so shy and quiet in school,” she recalls. “At six (years old), my name was Shawn, I had a six-pack and biceps, and all the girls thought I was a boy,” she said, adding that none of her classmates knew she was training for the Olympics “until it was live on television, and people were like, ‘whoa!’”

Johnson somberly remembers the anorexia she contended with while training for the Olympics and attending high school full time. She was consuming a mere 700 calories a day and still managing to practice 40 hours a week. “I think that’s where the age comes in,” she explains. “Having been 16 and having done that so long, after a while my body got used to it. But afterward it took a toll.” Johnson said the only way she knew how to bounce back from her eating disorder was to propel herself in the opposite direction — she got certified in nutrition and became a personal trainer. Now, that’s discipline!

Reminiscing about the strict diet her sport adheres to, she says, “Gymnastics has its own stereotypes and traditions that are just ingrained, and it’s going to take a while for those to weed themselves out. There is a tradition about what you should and shouldn’t eat. Strict no carbs, only fruits, vegetables, very lean proteins, no meat. It’s really hard.” She marvels at how the U.S. gymnastic team still doesn’t have a nutritionist working with the athletes. “It’s progressing,” she admits optimistically.

These days, in addition to running, biking, doing Crossfit, and even “playing around” with gymnastics, one of Johnson’s favorite outlets is writing. In The Flip Side, she creates a character who lives a double life, much like Johnson herself did growing up in Des Moines, Iowa. “Charlotte” is a student by day, and after school, she’s a gymnast who goes by the name “Charlie.” The Hannah Montana-like character deals with all the same issues Johnson lived through, including “the drama of high school, boys, falling in love, the cattiness, leading a double life, homework. There’s body image. There’s everything,” she says.

So who is Johnson rooting for in this year’s Olympics? Aside from the entire U.S. gymnastics team, she singles out 17-year-old Simone Biles, who she calls “one of the best gymnasts in history.” She says she’s excited but also nervous for the girls, because she’s a kind of big sister to them. But her faith in her successors is strong. “You need a very strong lean body and a very [fearless] mind” to succeed in the sport, she says.

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