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The gymnast, who rose to worldwide fame when she took home the gold on the balance beam at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, spoke to Dinner Party podcast host Jeremy Fall about how wanting to succeed at her sport pushed her toward unhealthy behaviors that led to an eating disorder.
Johnson, who followed up her Olympic success by winning Dancing With the Stars in 2009, explained, “As an elite athlete it was like, ‘What can I do to get an edge? What can I do to get that judge to give me a little higher score? What can I do to win that gold medal?’ For me, it was like, ‘Oh, they judge on aesthetics. The lighter I am, the higher I flip. The easier it is to flip on a beam.’ So for me, it was mathematical when I started. Let’s eat less, let’s weigh less, it’ll make your job easier.”
However, after she took home the silver — instead of the gold — in the all-around, Johnson was met with questions about how she could have “improved,” which greatly damaged her self-worth.
“It was just negativity,” she said. “It was failure on a global stage. Internally, I felt like I could do nothing more. I didn’t know where to go from that.”
Taking home the gold medal for beam “validated” her but also made her crave that feeling again. Though she ultimately took home the Mirrorball Trophy on Dancing With the Stars, all she saw was the criticism of her body, which was “going through puberty” at the time.
“The last time I felt respected was in the image of the gold medal beam winner,” Johnson explained. “So, I would do anything to attain that.”
The athlete said that there are many misconceptions about what having an eating disorder is really like, but said for her, it was a serious “mental illness” that changed the way she thought.
“I didn’t feel like I had control over my brain,” she said. “I felt like someone had invaded my mind and was literally thinking for me. It was this active effort to put forward to battle that voice. And when you get tired, you can’t battle it any longer. It’s like ‘Ugh, I need to binge, I need to purge, I need to not eat, I need to eat so much.’ And I would just spiral so much. You lose control as a human.”
This isn’t the first time Johnson, who is pregnant with her second child with husband Andrew East, spoke about battling an eating disorder.
Last year, she told the Today show that she forced herself to train while severely restricting her calories.
“I would pass out during practice or after practice,” she said on the show. “My body would cramp. I didn't have energy. I was unable to have a period. I wasn't maturing."
Johnson, who quit gymnastics in 2012 and began her road to recovery with the help of a wellness team that same year, added that she’s learned a lot from that experience.
“I love that I went through it,” she said. “It was very hard and I don't wish it on anyone, but I've had these tough experiences that make me a stronger mom that will allow me to teach [my daughter Drew] how to be strong as well."
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