ORANGE, NJ – Olympic balance beam gold medalist Shawn Johnson and “Dancing with the Stars” winner Shawn Johnson made an unexpected appearance to the delight of gymnasts at the Athletic Arts Academy on Wednesday afternoon. During her visit, she talked about her inspirational journey from a seven-year old recreation gymnast to the days where she was known as the “Best Female U.S. Olympian” (2009) and her life post-retirement.
Johnson shared valuable advice, signed autographs and even provided the young athletes and their families tickets to the upcoming 2016 AT&T American Cup, USA Gymnastics’ most prestigious international invitational, which will be making its New Jersey debut at the Prudential Center from March 4-5.
“I feel like I worked my whole life to achieve my dream and being given this platform and ability to give back is really important to me,” said Johnson, 24, a member of the prestigious USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame. “I remember being that kid not long ago with that sparkle in my eye. I feel like it’s my job now to see other kids dreams true or at least help them however I can.”
The gymnast that she looked up throughout her career was Olympic all-around gold medalist Mary Lou Retton. Johnson says the first time that she met Retton, she was putting an award around her neck and it was an incredible experience.
“My best piece of advice to young athletes is to just go out there and have fun,” suggested Johnson. “I feel like we take things too seriously at too young of an age and I feel like you just need to allow your kids to have fun.”
Aside from the kids, Johnson may have found a new fan in Iya-Sokoya Onayemi Karade, owner, head coach and program director of the Athletic Arts Academy, the first competitive gymnastics club in Essex County in nearly 50 years.
“My job as a coach is to guide young minds to where Shawn is in life,” explained Karade. “Not necessarily an Olympic gold medalist, but as a person who had big dreams, worked extremely hard and never gave up on them while maintaining a positive attitude, and sharing that journey to uplift and encourage younger generations.”
The Athletic Arts Academy, a family owned and operated gym encourages their members to model self-sufficiency, self-management, and self-determination.
“Our kids often fantasize about what life will be like when they are in control of their own destiny,” suggests Karade. “Shawn clearly laid out for them a relatable, non-threatening reality check. She credited ‘having fun’ as an important component of her success, but not without leading an organized and hard-working, risk-taking and record-breaking life.”
Karade suggests that ‘you just never know what will spark a child’s burning desire’ and for a young adolescent, meeting an Olympian just might do that.