Gold-Medal Gymnast Shawn Johnson Draws on Real Life for Debut Novel

As a 16-year-old, United States gymnast Shawn Johnson won a gold medal on the balance beam at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She also took home silver medals in the floor exercise and the team and all-around competitions. The following year, Johnson won Dancing with the Stars and later tried to make a comeback to gymnastics to compete in the 2012 Olympics. But after suffering a knee injury while skiing, she was forced to retire from gymnastics. 

Johnson was known for going about her gymnastics training in a different way from most Olympic gymnasts. While most are homeschooled and often consumed by training, she went to a public high school and tried to keep a regular social life. Her strategy paid off — but she faced challenges along the way and documented them in personal journals and diaries since she was a young girl. She used those memories as inspiration for her first novel, The Flip Side, which chronicles the daily life of Charlie, a high school gymnast trying to make the U.S. Olympic team. The book is fiction, but it’s based very closely on Shawn’s personal life experience and shows the ups and downs of having a double life: one as a gymnast, the other as a regular high school teen.  

Before she heads to Rio to comment on the 2016 Summer Olympics for Yahoo! Sports, Johnson spoke with Sports Illustrated Kids about her book and how it reflects her actual life story.

How did you decide to write a book? Was this something you’d always wanted to do, or did the idea develop after a particular experience you had?

I decided to write a book because I felt like I had all of these experiences that I hadn’t really shared with the world, and I wanted to write them in a book that people could connect with.

When did you do most of the writing?

I did most of my writing when I was younger. I kept it in journals and diaries. When I published the book, I put the journals and diaries into an edited book.

In the book, Charlie leads a double life. Did you ever live that kind of double identity, or was that just to make the book more interesting? 

So, Charlie is pretty much me in book form. Everything Charlie goes through, I went through. I just put a different name to it. So, yes, I definitely led kind of a double life and kept my gymnastics a big secret.

What was the most challenging part of the double life?

Trying to manage two personalities, almost. I genuinely wanted to be a gymnast in both lives, but I didn’t think I would be accepted. So trying to play that non-gymnast person in school and then being the gymnast outside of it.

How much did you add to the book to make the plot more intriguing, and how much of the book was based on your actual experiences?   

I would say [the part about] my best friend find out [about my gymnastics] and it being this big debacle, that didn’t happen. But honestly, like, 99% of it is my actual story, just put into character form.

Do you think attending public high school, as Charlie does in the book, worked out well for you, or do you wish you had done things differently?

I think it worked out really well for me. It gave me a grounded place to get away from gymnastics. It kept me kind of sane, so I love that I did that. It kept me feeling like I was somewhat normal!

Did you enjoy gymnastics ever since you were little?

I did! I fell in love with gymnastics ever since the first day I started when I was three, and I still love it to this day!

Did you have a gymnastics idol or someone who went before you who you really admired?

My gymnastics idol was always Mary Lou Retton, just because she was the icon of gymnastics and she seemed to really love gymnastics!

Do you have any thoughts about the current crop of US hopefuls for Rio? Anyone we should keep a close eye on, either for an individual medal or the all-around competition? 

I think this group of girls is one of the strongest we've ever seen. And I think Simone Biles is one of the strongest gymnasts in the history of the sport. So I'd say watch out for her!

What is your hope for your book and the message it can send to young readers?

I hope it will teach young readers that they can pursue their dreams and make mistakes and do things not the “normal way,” and they can still be successful doing what they love. In my career, I did things very differently from the average elite gymnast, and everyone was completely against it. But it was great to learn to truly do what you love and what works for you, instead of doing what everyone else is doing [and] going against the grain. [Young athletes] don’t have to be perfect. That you can make mistakes and do things differently. That it’s a process. That it wasn’t easy. I feel like Olympians are kind of put on a pedestal, and everybody thinks that the success came overnight, but there were challenges and bumps in the road, but at the end of the day, hard work pays off!

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