In the end, I just ran out of time
Ten years ago, my coach, Liang Chow, did a gutsy thing: He sent a video of me doing gymnastics to National Team Coordinator Martha Karolyi with a note that said something like, "I think this girl can really help Team USA. You'd be crazy not to have a look at her!"
I didn't know it at the time, but that was the beginning of the most remarkable journey of my life -- one that would take me around the world competing for the U.S., and culminate in four Olympic medals.
So maybe it's fitting that the end of my gymnastics career began with another conversation between Chow and Martha. On Friday morning, Chow called Martha to discuss the fact I was not ready to compete at U.S. nationals this week in St. Louis, Mo.
As you may know, Martha runs the show in women's gymnastics. She had allowed me to skip competing at last weekend's U.S. Classic in Chicago, expecting I would then be able to do my best at nationals. But as much as I wanted to train, a lingering knee injury has not cooperated, and it was clear I was not going to compete at the level I needed to be at. I guess the fact that I wasn't 100 percent ready has been an unspoken truth in the back of my mind for a little while now. But on Friday, I finally discussed it in the open.
Basically, Martha told Chow during their phone call that she respected where I was with my knee, but noted it was by no means ideal with the Olympics less than eight weeks away. She also emphasized strongly that she didn't want to push me to my breaking point. After that conversation, Chow called me, we talked it through, and decided it was the right time to retire. I'd given the comeback my all, and I'd seen this coming for awhile so it wasn't too much of a shocker -- not to me, who had been dealing with pain in the gym day after day, nor to my parents, who have been there for all the doctors' visits.
Last year, when I failed to qualify for the world team, Chow and I were able to say, "Well, we have a year before the Olympics, so we have time to get ready." Back then we weren't as worried. When he talked to me Friday, the reality of it was that we were just out of time. The time to wait and to hope my knee will get better has run out. The harsh reality is the Games are almost here, and I'm not ready.
One thing I've learned during the past several years is our failures define us as much as our successes. And I've been blessed with a lot of success. Through the 2008 Olympic Games, I was on a roll in gymnastics. I returned home to Iowa with one gold and three silver medals. I felt unbeatable and unbreakable. Most of all, my gymnastics career had been a wonderful experience: I enjoyed every single practice. Sure, there were some hard times, but the titles had all seemed to come easily. I'm not saying I didn't work hard, but before and during the Olympics, things just fell into place.
When I returned to the sport in 2010 things were completely different. It's been an extremely humbling experience. Having two knee surgeries and starting from scratch in the gym has made me a much stronger person -- stronger than I ever was in 2008. While I wouldn't change anything, I would say that trying a second time has proven to me how hard it is to make an Olympic team. If you can believe it, I used to think, Oh, 2008 was not a big deal. Now I can't imagine how I ever thought that.
Competing at nationals and the Pan American Games last year after a two-year layoff has felt like the high point of my entire career, because it was that hard to get to that point -- and it made me feel like I could do anything.
I think I was shaking when I talked to my agent Sheryl and told her to send out the official press release announcing my retirement. Pressing that send button to Tweet it was also incredibly difficult. There's a finality in this that in some ways is like hitting a brick wall. But it's exciting as well. I've had nothing but great feedback from people supporting me and encouraging me and from my sponsors. The way people have responded has been a huge relief.
To the girls who remain in the Olympic selection process: Hang in there. Martha Karolyi is a phenomenal coach and I've always believed what she does for the gymnasts is great. The selection process, on the other hand, hasn't always been the greatest. In 2008 it was drawn out too long, and by the time our team was actually selected and competing at the Olympics we were really exhausted. I'm so glad that this year's team will be named right at the Olympic trials on July 1. It's a very tough, mentally draining process. It's good that this time it will be a little shorter. It will help to preserve everyone on the team, mentally and physically, to peak at the right time.
As for me, I'll be in the stands in London, cheering on Team USA until I lose my voice. In the future, I would love to be involved with USA Gymnastics and the sport in any way they'd like me to be. Gymnastics has been a part of my life for too long to just turn away. But I'm also ready to move on and see what else is out there. I've got plans for college (deciding between the East and West Coasts!) and I'm trying to chart some new goals, too. The future is wide open, and to be honest, that scares me a lot! But gymnastics -- especially these last two years that I came back to the sport -- have taught me so much about myself. I know I'll figure out what I want to do next and have the confidence to go for it.
Check out Johnson's last blog, on how she always wished she was a few pounds thinner, here.