Shawn Johnson reveals 'embarrassing' truth behind memorable Olympic picture

Kevin Kaduk
Fourth-Place Medal

Now the truth can be told.

Eight years after being hailed for exemplary leadership in the face of disappointment, gymnast Shawn Johnson says the picture of her comforting teammate Alicia Sacramone at the Beijing Olympics isn’t quite what everyone thought it was.

“It’s incredibly embarrassing, but we were talking about Harry Potter,” said Johnson, who is currently working as a Yahoo Sports Olympics analyst. “It was always funny because people always wanted to ask me about this moment. About how I ‘brought the team together’ and how I ‘picked her back up.’ I never wanted to comment because it was so embarrassing.”

Shawn Johnson Alicia Sacramone
Shawn Johnson Alicia Sacramone

Team captain Sacramone had just made two crucial mistakes in the team competition — falling off the beam and during a pass in the floor exercise — that ended any chance the United States had at winning its first gold in team competition since 1996. Amid the disappointment, Johnson stepped in to give what looked like a few steadying words of encouragement. The team would end up winning a silver medal while Sacramone and Johnson took home a huge haul of medals during the individual competition.

The media at the time interpreted the meeting between Johnson and Sacramone to fit an Olympic narrative of perseverance and goodwill.

Check out what the Christian Science Monitor breathlessly wrote at the time:

Sacramone looked as though she was on the edge of a cliff, holding back that inevitable moment when the disappointment in her falls on floor and beam would overwhelm her and plunge her headlong into tears.

But Johnson smiled that smile that comes so easily for her, and took Sacramone’s arm in hers, almost as if they were an old married couple on a park bench. For a moment, however briefly, Sacramone smiled, too.

No matter what Johnson does in two days’ time on the women’s all-around competition, I hope the world will remember that image – of a 16-year-old girl who is not only an extraordinary athlete, but also something altogether more profound and worthy of celebration: an uncommon human being.

Johnson is an uncommon human being: An Olympic gold medalist  who is friendly and has always carried herself well in a very bright spotlight.

But at that moment she was just being a common 16-year-old girl. One who liked Harry Potter books and sharing inside jokes among friends.

“I remember walking straight up to {Sacramone) and I gave her a hug and I said ‘Too bad Shayla’s not here with her magic Harry Potter wand.'”

Shayla was Shayla Worley, a close friend and fellow top-ranked gymnast who didn’t make the Beijing Olympics after being hampered by an injury. According to Johnson, Worley was “obsessed” with the Harry Potter books and movies and would carry around wands to put spells on her others.

Johnson keyed on that obsession to get Sacramone’s mind off her mistakes.

“It had nothing to do with the competition, it was just Harry Potter,” Johnson said.

[Related: ‘Fierce Five’ gymnasts – Where are they now?]

While we’re clearing up misconceptions from those 2008 Olympics, Johnson said there was another media narrative at those Games that didn’t contain any truth. While the media busily pushed a rivalry between Nastia Liukin (“The Ballerina”) and Johnson (“The Energizer Bunny”), reality was something else.

“We were anything but rivals,” Johnson said. “We were roommates, we would spend our time reading books. I think we read the entire ‘Twilight’ series during the Beijing Olympics.

“We’re best of friends, we always have been.”

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