Tattooed on Shawn Johnson’s right forearm are the words “Grace with humility,” a Bible verse she has come to love. I could not see these words from my seat in the middle of Eisenhower auditorium, but after a student asked her about the tattoo on her arm, she swayed her right arm and spoke the words with a shy smile. Grace with humility. Although I could not see the ink on her arm, I could see how the message defines her life – and it allowed me to see why she chooses to share her story with others.
Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson competed in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, earning an individual gold medal in the balance beam and three silver medals in the individual all-around, floor exercise and team categories (Student Programming Association). This past Wednesday, I had the privilege of hearing Johnson present to Penn State students and community members about being true to yourself and being proud of yourself.
Johnson relayed her message through the stories of her four most defining moments: being bullied in school, winning the silver medal on the all-around, deciding to retire, and becoming involved in charity. Shawn, a shy child with biceps and a six-pack was teased and reviled by peers who called her a boy. She expressed that throughout high school she was given every derogatory label in the book. The teasing and exclusion caused Johnson to question if there was something wrong with her that would make her receive such harsh treatment. All of her life, she seemed to do things a little differently than others expected, and in the face of ridicule, Johnson decided to be happy with who she was. With encouraging words from her mother, Johnson remained true to who she was – and she continues to choose her own path today. She emphatically told us: “The best thing you can do in your entire life is to stop trying to be who everyone wants you to be. The best thing you can do in your entire life is to be who you want to be.”
Amidst a rough school climate, Johnson shocked her classmates when she went to the 2008 Olympic games. At the age of 16 Johnson learned to see herself and her accomplishments through her own eyes. While every major newspaper and media outlet had pegged Johnson on bringing home four gold medals, Johnson faced a defining moment in her life when she received the silver medal in the all-around. She felt as if she had let everyone down. She felt like a disappointment. Immediately following the awards, she was pushed through to press conference after press conference, and every reported asked the question: “How does it feel to lose?” Well, instead of responding abrasively to such a rude question, Johnson told reporters that she did not lose; she won the silver medal. She also continued to say that she is proud of her teammate Nastia who took home the gold. To this day, Johnson would not have changed one thing from her performance – because she gave everything she had and she performed for herself.
Seconds before the all-around event, she calculated the scores and realized that she did not have a chance to win the gold medal. While her first thought was that she was a disappointment, she stepped back and told herself, “if you can’t win the gold medal, go out there and compete like you deserve it,” and that is exactly what she did.
Johnson lives out grace with humility. She didn’t claim that the judges were crazy. She didn’t say that she should have won. She didn’t buy into the media’s view of success. She gracefully and humbly embraced her performance. She supported Nastia in her victory. She gave grace to the heckling reporters. She knew she gave the best performance of her life and was proud, without claiming the slightest superiority over others.
A man I worked with over the summer once told me, “strong people aren’t arrogant.” While we were having a conversation about job interviews, his statement about strength stuck out to me. He explained that if you are truly strong, you already know your strengths and you don’t need to tell others. His message and Johnson’s story convey what I too have come to believe: strong people are people who know their strengths and values, and who use their energy to support others.
Johnson truly is an inspiration to me. Her life of “grace with humility” is a powerful force in the world. As she continues her countless philanthropic efforts and works toward her degree in Sports Psychology and Nutrition from Vanderbilt, I know that she will continue to show her strength by supporting others. So what is it that makes you YOU? What is your true strength? How will you act to utilize your talents to support others? We all can choose to celebrate our own silver medal.
Student Programming Association. Shawn Johnson. N.p.: n.p., 2013. Print.