Shawn Johnson puts gymnastics behind her

It's never easy for athletes to retire because they are usually relatively young when they do so. This is especially the case for women gymnasts, who often achieve their highest athletic accomplishments when they are barely old enough to be called women.

Shawn Johnson won four Olympic medals in Beijing -- including one gold -- when she was 16. She became a certified national celebrity when she won "Dancing With The Stars" at age 17. Her hopes for more Olympic medals were effectively ended by a ski accident that tore her left ACL at age 18.

And Sunday she announced the end of her competitive gymnastics career at age 20. Goodbye gymnastics, hello life.

"This is a really hard moment," Johnson said in a teleconference call. "I still have the heart and drive and desire to compete. Unfortunately, my route has been cut a little short. It's become obvious my knee is not going to allow me to be in gymnastics any longer and be on that stage competing with the girls. All I can do now is gracefully retire and thank everybody who has believed in me and been part of this entire journey.

"Looking to the future, I have many goals. It's weird. This is the first time in my life where, when I wake up, gymnastics will not be my sport anymore. A normal day was always going to practice at 2:30. Now it's a little different. I'm trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life."

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Shawn Johnson was a decorated member of the 2008 Olympic squad earning four medals, one gold and three silver, at age 16.

She has a lot to top in that regard.

In addition to her Olympic medals, Johnson read the Pledge of Allegiance at the 2008 Democratic convention, led the Wrigley Field crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," was a Miss America judge, and appeared on Letterman, Leno, Kimmel and Oprah. Plus, she has a book coming out Tuesday. All that before she is of legal drinking age.

Imagine what she might be able to accomplish with the rest of her life, particularly now that she no longer must devote hours each afternoon to gymnastics workouts.

"I don't think it's daunting at all, I think it's exciting," she said. "If anything, my past 20 years have taught me I can accomplish anything I set my mind to. And to really set a bar high. It just makes me want to work harder for something that might seem impossible at first, but if given the right amount of effort, can come true.

"I think it's set me up for a pretty exciting future because I'm not going to settle for these easy things."

Johnson won the gold in the balance beam along with three silvers at the 2008 Olympics, but with the depth of U.S. gymnastics and one fewer spot available on the Olympic team, she faced a difficult road to London even with a healthy knee. "It would have taken everything I had and it would have taken luck," she said. "No matter what team is selected, I think we'll be the team to beat."

And with the bad knee, it became clear she would not be able to make the team.

"It's been a constant fight ever since I started coming back with my knee," Johnson said. "I would make a little progress and then it would act up or hurt again and I would have to take time off. It honestly came down to that there is not enough time left to heal it and get it strong to where we want. It was the realistic decision that we had to face."

Johnson said she made the choice Friday, after talking with her longtime coach Liang Chow, and spent the next two days letting it sink in before making a formal announcement. "It was hard to accept that the one thing you've had your entire life is no longer there," she said.

Despite the injury, Johnson said she did not regret the 2010 ski trip where she hurt the knee, saying her recovery was what sparked her comeback attempt.

"It was the first time in two years of whirlwind and chaos that I had the time to think about things," she said. "I knew I missed my sport. I knew I didn't want to have any questions or regrets. I simply wanted to go back to get my health back and my passion back for my sport, and through that I got back my passion for competing."

Johnson will be in London rooting for her teammates. After that, she plans to start college by the fall of 2013 or earlier, possibly attending Stanford or Vanderbilt. She said she will coach summer camps and work with various charities. She said she probably will change her mind about what else she wants to do a million times.

The unfortunate thing is Johnson's gymnastics career is over at age 20. The good thing is, based on what she's done in her first 20 years, she should have a rich and rewarding life ahead.

"I'm scared to death to know what the future holds because it's kind of a blinded road I've never thought about, but I'm excited as well," she said. "I'm ready to start the journey."

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