Why U.S. Gymnast Shawn Johnson Gave Up Bid for Second Olympics

For professional athletes, retiring from sports is never easy. Johnson talks candidly about what inspired her comeback — and why she decided to end her competitive career

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Shawn Johnson stretches before the Senior Women's competition on day four of the Visa Gymnastics Championships at Xcel Energy Center in St Paul, Minn.

Most people wouldn’t consider retiring at age 20, but Shawn Johnson has been a competitive gymnast for practically her entire life, ever since she took her first swing from the bars at the gym as a three year old. Johnson turned her rambunctious energy into an enviable athletic career that earned her seven world and Olympic medals, including the all-around title at the world championships, Olympic gold on beam, Olympic silver in the all-around competition, and the team silver medal at the Beijing Games.

After two decades, Johnson announced she is retiring from competitive gymnastics. She was training for a chance to make her second Olympic team, but said a knee injury from a 2010 ski accident was keeping her from preparing at the level she needed. “My body is to the point where I need time to rest and retire so I can be healthy for the rest of my life,” she said to the Associated Press. “My knee just can’t take it anymore,” she said to NBCOlympics.com. “It has been a constant battle since I came back and recently got worse with the higher numbers. I pushed it to a point and tried to get the finish line and I came up a little short. I can’t do it anymore. It was a hard moment. It was hard to sit here and be told your life in gymnastics is over.”

In a conference call, Johnson said continuing to train would potentially damage her knee further, and require total knee reconstruction, which could affect her ability to move in coming years.

Five of the six members of the 2008 Olympic team, including Johnson, are hoping to make the London squad. But the reasons for her attempted comeback, Johnson told me during a frank talk over coffee last month in her home town of West Des Moines, Iowa, were very personal.

MORE: U.S. Rough Start to Gymnastics

After 2008, she was finished with gymnastics. “After 2008, I said I was completely done for good,” she said. “I never planned on going back to the sport, and I said that was it, that was my finish line.” She occasionally checked in with her longtime coach, Liang Qiao (Chow), just to say hi, but didn’t come to the gym as she had nearly every day for her entire life to train. After Beijing, the plan was to finish high school, go to college and “work on getting a normal job, and be a normal person for a while.” The whirlwind of opportunities — a gymnastics tour, sponsorships, appearances — weakened the pull of normalcy for a couple of years. Johnson and her mother moved to Los Angeles to take advantage of more opportunities, including a successful turn on Dancing With the Stars.

But Johnson said the two years away from the gym, away from the structure and discipline of training every day, and focusing on a goal, turned her head around to the point where she felt overwhelmed. “I lost who I was and got too wrapped up in everything,” she said of her time in California. “I became a different person [whom] I wasn’t proud of. I lost track of my morals and became very materialistic, and in what I could do to get a little further on top. It was all about doing another contract, and trying to get on another TV show, and getting more publicity and more fans or votes.”

An only child, Johnson argued with her mother, and endured their longest period of not speaking to each other. “Looking back now, I definitely was not in my right state of mind,” she said. “I don’t think I would have listened to anybody back then. In my eyes, I was on the #1 show in America, I just came off the Olympics. I was on a high.”

MORE: Are Gymnasts Pushed Too Far?

Then came a 2010 ski trip, during which Johnson tore up her left knee. Doctors warned her that she might not ever do gymnastics again, and that scared her. The recovery also slowed down the chaotic tumble of her life enough to give her time to think about and set new goals. Naturally, she turned back to gymnastics. “Gymnastics seemed like a great opportunity to get me back on track, healthy and thinking about what was best for me, and not just going with the flow of everything,” she said.

Chow, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure. “I told her it would definitely not be easy,” he said. “There were many things against her.” First was the two year hiatus from the gym; it would take dedication and a painful conditioning and training regimen to regain the skills and fitness level Johnson had developed over 13 years before the Beijing Games. Then there was the knee, which prevented her from doing as many repetitions as she really needed.

But the two set achievable goals, and Johnson met and surpassed them. At first, the target was to compete again, regardless of whether she could perform at the level required to make the Olympic team. Within a year of resuming full training, she did just that, at the Pan American Games, and contributed to the U.S. women’s team gold medal; she even picked up a silver medal on the uneven bars. “I wanted to prove to people that I was taking it seriously, to show them that I was still capable, and still the same Shawn that they saw in 2008,” she said. “It felt good to prove that.”

Then came the next hurdle — preparing for London. Johnson was realistic about her chances; making the team, she knew, would be a bonus. More important was that she prove to herself that she could commit to a goal and achieve it once more. “If I don’t make [the Olympic team], honestly, I accept it,” she told me. “I kind of already accepted it. I’ve come so far, and made myself extremely proud of how long I stuck it out, and the hurdles I overcame. I proved to myself what I thought was impossible was actually possible. I think I proved to everybody that I did make a successful comeback, because I made it back to competition.”

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Will her presence in London be missed? The U.S. is fortunate to have such a deep field of elite-level girls that America could easily field two teams of five girls for the Games. But Johnson’s steely competitiveness and ability to perform under pressure might have helped younger girls who might find themselves buckling under the burden of competing under the Olympic spotlight. But while she won’t be on the mats, Johnson says she plans to be in London supporting the U.S. team, including her training-mate Gabrielle Douglas, who is a favorite for the London squad. “Being in London is a must,” she said to NBCOlympics.com. “It’s not going to be easy to be there and live through it all, but I owe it to the girls to be there. We’re a family and I need to be there for them.” In the end, the wear and tear required to be in top Olympic form may have proved too daunting for her knee, but not on her will.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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