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Entertainment & the Arts | July 26, 2012

A life in balance

Review

New book by former Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson is a perfect read for fans of this year's games

Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson shows off her medals at her welcome home ceremony at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Kevin Sanders)

Winning Balance, by four time Olympic medalist Shawn Johnson, is the perfect book for anyone who expects to be glued to the television during the next few weeks, absorbing every minute of this year's games. Johnson's autobiography gives readers insight into the heart of a true Olympian and transports them into the Olympic experience, through the eyes of a 3-year-old budding gymnast and a teenager weighed down by gold medal dreams. Throughout her story, Johnson testifies to God's grace, from her short and stocky birth size, uncharacteristic for gymnasts, to her Olympic experience and her plans for the future.

When she was just 3, Johnson's parents enrolled her in a local gymnastics program in Des Moines, Iowa,to help burn off a restless amount of energy. After only a short period of training, Johnson's first coach told her mother that she was simply "full of energy, but not full of talent." A short time later, Johnson's mother transferred her to Chow's Gymnastics and Dance Institute, in West Des Moines, where her Olympic career begin.

While Johnson's first coach thought she lacked talent, her new coach believed that no one could determine who would become a champion at such a young age. Johnson's new coach, Qiao Lang, taught her gymnastics skills but also reminded her to have fun and live in the world outside of gymnastics.

Although she started tumbling across the floor and twisting through the air at a young age, Johnson didn't set her mind on the Olympics until her first gymnastics summer camp, when she and her friends watched gymnast Carly Patterson perform on television. Patterson won the all-around gold in Athens, Greece in 2004. Johnson, then 12, decided she wanted to stand one day on the Olympic podium wearing red, white, and blue.

Making it to the Olympics was quite the challenge. Due to what she calls the fickleness of gymnastics, Johnson's spot on the team always seemed to hang in midair. But once she made the team and arrived in Beijing, China, for the 2008 Olympics, Johnson faced a new set of trials. She battled homesickness and described calls home, full of tears and mixed feelings towards the sport that had suddenly consumed her entire life.

With touching honesty, Johnson describes her feelings of disappointment and inadequacy, after winning only silver medals. The anxiety almost pushed her mind into a place incapable of winning the gold. "I stood there feeling more hurt than I'd ever felt in my life. I couldn't understand how I could have worked my entire life for something only to see it come down to this," she writes. Johnson did eventually win a gold medal for her last Olympic event, the balance beam.

Pressure that felt like walls collapsing on top of her followed Johnson's every move during the 2008 Olympic games. And in a flash, the very thing she spent more than twelve years training for was over, leaving her empty.

Throughout the games, Johnson turned to her Bible and prayer, resolving to leave her life in God's hands. "Perhaps the greatest lessons I've learned so far are these: Everything happens for a reason, and God can be trusted to work all things together for good," she writes. Johnson also describes learning that worth does not come from accomplishments or the color of the medals around her neck, but rather through God.

Johnson told interviewers that Winning Balance was about sharing her Olympic experience from her point of view, to connect with her fans in a vulnerable way, and to teach others what she has learned from her experience: "I learned that having a winning balance doesn't always mean winning the medal; it means keeping the important things in life in balance."

Johnson has retired from the Olympics, but she plans to be in London for the duration of this year's games, working with sponsors and supporting the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.