The Olympic gymnast opens up about why a miscarriage last year influenced her decision about whether to run her first 26.2 miles on April 15.
Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson East is no stranger to setting—and achieving—big goals. The 27-year-old took home four medals (including gold on the balance beam) from the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and added the “Dancing with the Stars” mirrorball trophy to her collection in 2009. But her latest athletic endeavor—running the 2019 Boston Marathon—has been put on hold, thanks to the news that she’s pregnant.
Johnson East and her husband, pro football player Andrew East, were planning to run the marathon with the help of CLIF Bar, but that changed after finding out in February that Shawn is pregnant. (See their joyful pregnancy announcement, shared on April 4, on her YouTube channel.)
The pregnancy news is even more emotional for the couple given that Johnson East had a miscarriage a year and a half ago, and it’s that history that played a role in her decision to forego the full marathon in favor of the Boston Athletic Association 5K.
“It was honestly a really hard decision, because I felt like I could do it and be fine,” she said, during an interview with Women’s Running. “And everything looks good, so my doctor was like, ‘You could probably do it.’ But because of our past, she said the safest thing to do is probably not run it, especially because this would be my first marathon. She just said that might be pushing [my] body a little too hard, and we don’t want to chance it.”
Prior to discovering her mom-to-be status, Johnson East, who says who says running a marathon is her “number one bucket list item,” had her sights set on running a sub-four-hour race. She was following a marathon training program and was up to 12-mile long runs—a comfortable distance for her, considering that she’s got a dozen half marathons under her running belt.
“I felt great about my training, and I have that athlete mindset, so deciding not to do it was really hard,” she said. “But it’s just this weird feeling of, it’s no longer my body that I’m vouching for, it’s someone else’s. Which is very frustrating, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make, obviously.”
These days, with her doctor’s blessing, she’s hitting the trails in her hometown of Nashville for easy 3-5 mile runs—a distance she calls her sweet spot. “I love it,” she said.
That wasn’t always the case. For all of her athletic training, Johnson East didn’t exactly log long miles as a gymnast.
“I’ve been a power athlete from the day I was born,” she said. “I’ve never been an endurance athlete. The longest routine you compete in gymnastics is 90 seconds, and it’s a full-on sprint. I think I actually tried running a mile around the Olympics and it took me 16 minutes. From that day forward my goal was to run a marathon because it was so foreign to me.”
Running took on more than bucket-list status after an injury forced her to abandon her bid to make the 2012 Olympic team and she announced her retirement from gymnastics. “I felt lost. It was a huge disappointment and weight on me, and I starting running,” she said. “I was 19, and every night I’d go for a run in the streets of Iowa, and I loved it. It gave me a freedom I hadn’t felt in a while. It was liberating. It was what my mind needed, so I started running half marathons for fun.”
Fun, in fact, is her new goal for Boston—although on race day, she admits, she’s going to be “100 percent jealous” of her husband.
“I’m not a very good spectator. I like to be in it. But I’m going to be cheering him on, and I’m just really excited to get out there,” she said.
And as for next year’s race? Boston may still be on the bucket list, baby. Johnson East won’t even be 6 months postpartum, but don’t count her out. “It’s definitely possible,” she said, laughing, “but we’ll see. It’d be a goal.”