Olympic gold medalist and Dancing with the Stars champion Shawn Johnson faced more than grueling practices and fierce competitors growing up as an elite gymnast – she felt such pressure to adhere to the ‘look’ of a svelte gymnast that she sometimes restricted her diet to 700 calories a day.
“I was always the very strong, powerful, muscly, bulky gymnast and I felt like people always wanted me to be thinner and lighter and leaner,” she tells PEOPLE. “And as a 12-year-old, the only way I really understood how to achieve that was to eat less and restrict myself. I remember kind of obsessing over it.”
Johnson put herself on an extremely limited diet to lose weight.
“I went as far as literally not eating any carbs. I wouldn’t allow myself to eat a single noodle of soup,” she says. “It got to point where my body was like, shutting down. I was on a diet where I would eat like 700 calories a day – all the way through the 2008 Olympics.”
While Johnson knew her habits were problematic, she was never formally diagnosed with an eating disorder.
“I never went to a doctor, talked to a psychologist or was diagnosed as anorexic, but I was definitely obsessive and had very unhealthy habits,” she explains. “I’m sure I would have been diagnosed with something but I just never got to that point.”
Looking back, she says her limited calories likely affected her performance.
“I feel like my body had gotten so used to performing and practicing under those conditions that that’s all I knew,” she says. “I probably could’ve performed better and had a little more energy if I was feeding myself better.”
Johnson admits that it she made it hard for her parents, who struggled with trying to feed her balanced meals while also supporting her intense desire to succeed in the sport.
“It was hard on my parents to see their 12-year-old daughter going through this,” she says. “It definitely was a concern of theirs. I would come home after a practice and my dad would make me French toast or pancakes – anything he knew I couldn’t resist – to get calories into me.”
Johnson’s desire to be thinner came from what she thought judges expected from a gymnast. “Back then, the judges liked the look of a very lean and skinny gymnast that was artistic and graceful, rather than powerful like myself,” she says, adding that she felt immense pressure to transform her body into what it was not.
That’s why it was such a sweet victory when she nabbed the gold medal in 2008 for the balance beam event.
“There was definitely a huge sense of pride that came with it,” she says.
Once the Olympics were over, Johnson stopped her obsessive eating habits and gained 20 lbs. But in March 2009, she was again thrust into the spotlight as a competitor on DWTS, when she came under scrutiny from viewers.
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“I was put on a huge platform [on the show],” she says. “People thought of me as this 6-percent-body-fat-Olympian on a podium with a medal around her neck.”
Johnson’s body soon became a topic on social media.
“I just seemed to be the perfect target. Being 4’11” and putting on 20 lbs. looks like a lot, and people had no problem voicing their opinions. I took it really hard. As a perfectionist coming from the gymnastics world where you have to earn respect, I felt like I was losing the respect that I had earned, and it kind of broke me down.”
Exhausted and upset from the criticism, Johnson says she just “gave up” on staying in shape, and looked for easy fixes – everything from diet pills to juice cleanses to diuretics – to lose the weight she’d gained. But it only made her self-confidence plummet further.
“It’s a vicious cycle. Instead of putting in the time and effort to be healthy and do things the right way, you look for a quick fix that might work for a week or two. But then you put weight back on, and your mental health and confidence go back down,” Johnson explains. “With every attempt to be healthy and lose weight, with every failure, I just got more defeated.”
Now, thanks to a nutritionist and the support of her family and her fiancé, Andrew East, she’s feeling confident in her body.
“It might sound cheesy, but my fiancé had a lot to do with it,” she says. “Before him, I didn’t voice any of this to anybody. I knew I had unhealthy habits, but I don’t think most people knew. There was an open honesty with him. I felt like I could just be me and I knew he was still going to love me.”
Looking ahead to next year’s Rio Olympics, Johnson hopes that the girls preparing for the competition will not succumb to the same body-image pitfalls as she did. She says she’s seen a shift in the gymnastics world that favors the more athletic body type.
“I think it’s a pressure that will forever be in gymnastics – it’s just part of the sport,” she explains. “But I do think that there is a difference in the sport, and the prospects going to Rio are the stronger types, the muscular and powerful girls.”
Her advice to them is to focus on getting the nutrients their bodies need to perform.
“The most important thing is to be healthy and confident in yourself. You’re on the biggest stage in the world so you need to do what your body asks.”