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Shawn Johnson on "Turning Off Fear," Motherhood, and a Surprising Standout Olympic Memory

The 2008 Olympic gold medal winner reveals she also has high hopes for Snoop Dogg and Simone Biles at the 2024 Paris Games. 

By Andrew Woodin

After a series of sensational performances at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China led her to capturing one gold and three silver medals, including one for her epic showdown with Nastia Liukin during the floor exercises, at just 16 years old, Shawn Johnson officially cemented herself in the heart and minds of Americans, home and abroad.

Transcending the realm of elite athleticism, she became a shining beacon for all those, near and far, young and old, searching for a hero of her caliber and role model to boot. Now, as she looks ahead to the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France, which she’ll be bringing her entire family to, the busy mother of three is reflecting on her favorite Olympic memory and how she’s channeling her passion for competitive gymnastics into being the best mom she can be.

For more on the Olympics: 
Olympic Sprinter Usain Bolt Is Inspiring a New Generation of Athletes: "Anything Is Possible"
NBC Bringing Live Summer Olympics Coverage To a Theater Near You
Olympics Opening Games Host Kelly Clarkson Reveals What "Sport" She'd Gold-Medal In

Shawn Johnson's Plans for the 2024 Olympics

Shawn Johnson Easton the red carpet of the 47th People's Choice Awards

While she intends to cheer on gymnasts Simone Biles, Suni Lee, and the rest of Team USA’s elite gymnastics squad, the thing Shawn Johnson is looking forward to the most with her kids and husband of nearly eight years, Andrew East, during the family’s time in France’s “City of Light” isn’t necessarily the competition.

“We’ve been actually researching the games, and I’m crazy enough to be taking all three of my kids and our family over there, but the opening ceremonies on the river this year is something I’ve never heard of or seen,” says Johnson to NBC Insider. “I think it’s going to really, really special, so I’m really excited to see [it]. It’s also open to the public as well which is wild.”

And Johnson is not wrong — the Paris Opening Ceremony is going to be one for the books as it's the first ceremony to take place outside of a stadium. NBC Sports' Mike Tirico is set to host the network's coverage of the ceremony, alongside Kelly Clarkson and Peyton Manning. Even TODAY's Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie will be on the ground, ensuring all angles are covered for the big event.

As memorable as this ceremony might be, Johnson's also got her eye on NBC’s special correspondent, Snoop Dogg.

“The most genius correspondent to ever happen,” the gold medalist gushes of the Long Beach, California native and generational rap icon. “I still watch all of his highlight reels from the last Olympics. I think more than him interviewing someone, I want to see him try a lot of it. Like, I picture Snoop Dogg trying to joust or something, and I think it would be just gold. That would be awesome."

What's going through the mind of an Olympian?

Shawn Johnson stands with her parents after the Women's all around Gymnastics event in 2008

Though Shawn Johnson admits that the pressure of executing flawlessly during Olympic competition is always top of mind, the last-minute nature in completing Team USA’s gymnastics roster means elite athletes like Simone Biles and Shilese Jones have less time to think about their future performances.

Johnson notes that the team isn't finalized till weeks before the Games begin, so the athletes are often preoccupied with making it through the trials. Once they've been selected for the team, they're able to relax just the tiniest bit and enjoy themselves. As Shawn puts it, “A lot of these girls, they’ve been working their entire life for that moment, so it’s just a victory lap, a very high stakes victory lap.”

But it’s not just the endless hours of rigorous physical training the hopeful competitors for Team USA’s gymnastic team must endure throughout their pursuit of their life-long dream. According to Johnson, their preparations also include a mental element.

“I think outside of the mental fortitude of just like the resilience to get there, at that level of gymnastics, your gears kinda have to be off a little bit," Johnson explains. "You have the ability to turn off fear, and I would say most gymnasts retire because that little gear gets switched back on, and you start being afraid of gymnastics and the what-if’s.”

“But some of the highest levels of gymnasts are able to kind of defy gravity and risk and just kinda go for things that just shouldn’t be possible, like Simone [Biles] and execute them in ways that shouldn’t be possible by the human body,” she adds. “You got to be a little different, which is really fun.”

RELATED: Who Is U.S. Gymnast Shilese Jones, Who's Working Toward Olympic Dream with Father's Memory Close To Her Heart?

The Surprising Role Harry Potter Played in the 2008 Beijing Olympics

In reflecting on her favorite memory from the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, Shawn Johnson recalls how she and some of her other Team USA peers relied on Harry Potter and the rest of Hogwarts for a little extra “competitive edge.”

“I just remember, as a parent, now looking back, we were 16-year-old kids, and I remember sitting in the team final, so we were in the middle of the competition,” recollects the Hall of Fame gymnast. “We were talking about Harry Potter and casting spells on the remaining gymnasts from other countries, who still had to perform, hoping that a spell would make them step out of bounds or do something to where we could get the gold.”

She continues, “And it’s such a special moment for me now as a mom because it’s so innocent and sincere and childish, but it was a moment that sticks with me because they’re my sisters, [and] we were so involved… It was just funny.”

Though it's not all that surprising to hear that Harry Potter was a topic of conversation at the Olympics, especially considering Johnson is a huge fan of the wizard. Back in 2015, she confirmed that she's read all the books and watched all the movies.

Lessons from Motherhood

Andrew East, Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and Ben Weyand attends the 2023 espys

As someone whose successful career in gymnastics was built around sticking to a disciplined routine, Shawn Johnson says motherhood has taught her how to embrace the chaos and adapt when there’s no structured formula for raising her three children.

“It’s not athletics,” she jokes. “You can’t just train kids into perfection. …I feel like I’m so used to having a program, and if you just stick to the program it works, and kids are not like that… So, the perfectionist side of me had to turn off to allow for flexibility and creativity and failure.”

“[I] had to learn how to truly celebrate that because that’s some of the greatest times of parenting is the failures that see your kids go through, so that’s been different and hard but cool.”

While it’s difficult to imagine her failing at anything — she’s parlayed an Olympic gold medal-winning career into being a New York Times Best Selling Author and active YouTuber — the Iowa native says she’ll happily test her perfectionist side and embrace the intrinsic challenges of parenting any day.

“Seeing these little kids turn into their own person is the most special thing of all,” notes Johnson of her children, Drew, Jett and Bear. “And my job as a parent is to help foster that, whatever that is. Seeing their little interests start to come to life is really cool. …It’s just fun to see their little minds kinda develop and turn into something.”

Her diligence as a committed, health-conscious parent is at the core of why she joined forces with MorningStar Farms to promote the return of the “fan favorite” riblets, where one lucky sweepstakes winner will get to have lunch with the iconic gymnast in Nashville, Tennessee.  

“I love their ingredients,” says Johnson. “As a parent, they have a lot of protein which is a great way and great thing to put in your arsenal. …They are delicious, and my kids love them, which is a huge win.”

RELATED: U.S. Gymnast and Olympic Hopeful Leanne Wong Is In It For the Fun: "I'm Really Enjoying the Sport"

Her Tattoos

To celebrate her children and other members of her family, Shawn Johnson decided the best way to stick the landing was to stick with the ink.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while,” reveals the 2007 World all-around champion. “I have all three of my babies’ names, very, very small and fine.”

“Then, we lost my father-in-law about a year ago, and he was a big core of my family,” she adds. “And a symbol of his was a honeybee. He’s a honey keeper and bee keeper and makes honey, and it’s been a legacy thing. So, me and my sisters-in-laws, we all got a little honey bee for our last name and to honor him.”

Shawn Johnson's Hobbies

Shawn Johnson stands with her husband Andrew East at the Rock N' Jock Celebrity Softball Game

If you can recall Shawn Johnson’s high-flying, draw-dropping aerial maneuvers during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, it should come as no surprise that she’s wired for other forms of high-octane fun.

“I’m an adrenaline junkie,” says Johnson. “My husband [former NFL long snapper Andrew East, Washington Commanders] and I jump out of planes, fly planes, ride motorcycles. …I think I miss the adrenaline of gymnastics and probably transfer it to an unhealthy hobby, but I love adrenaline.”

Apparently, she and her husband aren’t the only ones in the house who naturally lean into the realm of adrenaline-fueled sports, with Johnson revealing, “My son loves bicycles, like BMX-style bicycles as a two-year-old, and that’s all he wants to watch on YouTube, and my daughter is obsessed with rock climbing more than anything that she’s ever done. …It’s so cool.”

Seems the apples didn’t fall too far from the tree.

Watch live coverage of the Opening Ceremony on Friday, July 26, on NBC and Peacock beginning at Noon ET. Telemundo will provide Spanish-language coverage beginning at 1 p.m. ET. Primetime coverage starts at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT on NBC and Peacock.