Johnson, who competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, spoke to a packed crowd, highlighting her experiences with success and failure as an olympic athlete. At 16, she was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, as well as being team captain and the favorite to win gold in the main events. When she ended up taking home silver in three of her four events, earning gold only in the balance beam, Johnson said that many people behaved as though she had failed.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘If you can’t win the gold medal, at least go out there and show them that you deserved it,’” Johnson said.
She settled around the theme of coming to terms with accomplishments and failures and reconciling them with the perception the broader public may have of them. Johnson’s advice to the audience was to remain passionate about whatever subject they decide to take on and not let other’s perceptions come to be what defines them.
“I was trying to live up to an image and expectations that people put on me,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t up until I was 19, 20, 21 that I started to figure out, I don’t care what you have to offer or what you want me to be, I’m going to be who I want and I’m going to do the things I want because that is what will make me most proud.”
Johnson also discussed her experiences in the pop culture spotlight as a contestant in shows such as “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Apprentice,” the latter being a show hosted by current Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. While she refrained from making any political commentary regarding her position on Trump, she did say that her experiences with him were always pleasant.
“I had leading up to being on ‘The Apprentice’ some of the rumors surrounding [Trump],” Johnson said. “I got to see him interacting with his family, and he was always incredibly nice and polite to me.”
NC State students attending the event seemed enthusiastic about Johnson’s visit, as many recognized her from her from both her time as an Olympian and a reality TV star. Caroline Spencer, a freshman majoring in exploratory studies, said that she was excited to see Johnson speak.
“I loved watching her in the Olympics; I’m a big fan,” Spencer said.
James Vislocky, a senior studying paper science and engineering, said that while he was in attendance to earn points for his fraternity at homecoming, he was excited to see the former gymnast.
“Everything she’s done has been impressive,” Vislocky said.
After her speech ended, Johnson took the time to field questions from the audience. Questions ranged from people who said they inspired her and wanted to know her secrets to success, to members asking the happily married former gymnast to be their date to formal.
Johnson’s main message to the crowd was to be proud of each of their accomplishments, saying that the moment that many would point to as a failure in her career was one of her proudest moments.
“If I had to turn in one of my medals, I would give up the gold before I gave up that silver,” Johnson said.