Olympic athletes face more pressure than most of us, but no one is immune to the pain of failure. We can all relate to experiencing a defeat that spirals into an identity crisis—but for most of us, ours isn’t on the world’s stage.
Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson East opened up about this subject last week in a video for I Am Second, revealing that underperforming in the eyes of the world took a serious toll on her health and self-image.
After winning three gold medals at the 2007 World Championships, America’s sweetheart had a lot to live up to. Everyone expected her to take home four gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and although she did win gold on the balance beam, the three silver medals she won elsewhere in the competition felt like failure.
East knew she couldn’t take home gold in the all-around, but she performed her best floor routine to date proving that even if she didn’t win gold, she deserved it. After she finished her routine to applause and a standing ovation, she felt elated—but not for long. When she received her silver medal for the all-around, the person who placed her medal mouthed “I’m sorry”—and East says she felt an overwhelming sense of defeat.
East said she had been proud of her success until she listened to the voices saying she wasn’t good enough. She became disappointed in herself; knowing that she had tried her best wasn’t enough because the pressure to fit a narrow vision of success was so strong.
“Since the world saw me as nothing else,” she said in the video, “then if I failed at being a gymnast, I failed at being a human being.”
And East desperately wanted to please those watching her. It wasn’t until East began training for the 2012 Olympics, with sponsors joining and pressures mounting, that she had her aha moment: She realized she wasn’t doing it for herself anymore. Even when she competed on (and won) Dancing with the Stars, she was criticized online about her weight, her appearance, and even her personality. The pressure to succeed, to fit a certain identity and look, became too much.
Six months before the 2012 Olympic trials, East reached a breaking point. She was depressed, she couldn’t sleep, and she was even losing hair. Although a torn ACL was also part of the reason she ended up retiring, East says overall it was a mental shift: she realized that she didn’t have to keep competing, and she didn’t want to.
After realizing “it’s OK to follow your heart and to put it behind you,” she says she felt lighter, just like she’d felt lighter four years earlier when she performed her best floor routine without worrying about the outcome. Since then, East has built a life beyond gymnastics. She has published two books and cofounded a website, The Body Department, for women to discuss health and fitness in a way that promotes body positivity.
East’s story reminds us that if you look for worldly success to validate you, you will always come up short. Women in particular tend to put unnecessary pressure on themselves to please others. But meeting everyone else’s standards is not always in our best interests. So let’s all take a tip from Shawn Johnson East’s playbook and ignore the deafening crowd. There’s no point in pleasing others if we lose ourselves.
Photo Credit: I Am Second