(L-R) Bridget Sloan, Alicia Sacramone, Samantha Peszek, Chellsie Memmel, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson celebrate after receiving the silver medal at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 13, 2008 in Beijing.
BOSTON -- Walking into Beijing’s National Indoor Stadium for the first time, the U.S. gymnasts were stunned to see American flags. And it wasn’t just one or two of them. Despite the 2008 Olympic Games being in China, the Americans felt at home.
“I look back on it and its still so surreal,” Shawn Johnson said.
The Olympic Games Beijing 2008 had one of the most hotly anticipated women’s gymnastics competitions. Individually, it was all about Johnson and U.S. teammate Nastia Liukin. In the team competition, all eyes were on the U.S. and China, with the host country desperate to win its first team gold medal.
Ultimately the hosts got their wish, as China won the gold medal and Team USA took silver, but the Beijing Games were one to remember for Team USA. In addition to the team silver medal, Johnson and Liukin combined to win seven individual medals. Liukin’s all-around title was the second in a row for Team USA in a streak that has thus far reached four with Simone Biles’ win in 2016.
Johnson, Liukin and their 2008 U.S. Olympic men’s and women’s artistic gymnastics teammates were honored for the 10-year anniversary of their accomplishments, which included 10 medals, on Sunday during the final night of competition at the 2018 U.S. Gymnastics Championships, which were part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity. The five women in attendance — Alicia Sacramone did not attend — spoke about those memorable Olympics and what they’ve done since.
Shawn Jonhson competes at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 15, 2008 in Beijing.
In Beijing: Arriving as the defending world all-around champion, Johnson co-headlined the gymnastics competition alongside teammate Nastia Liukin. Though Liukin edged Johnson for the all-around gold medal, Johnson added an individual silver medal on floor exercise before closing the Games with a rock-solid performance on the balance beam to go home with an Olympic gold medal.
Since Beijing: An attempted comeback for the 2012 Olympics ended just before that year’s U.S. championships, when Johnson abruptly announced her retirement. Her competitive streak was not over, though, as Johnson went on to reality television fame, including winning “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009 and competing on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2015.
Now: After taking “a casual eight-year hiatus from each other,” Johnson and Liukin reestablished their relationship and now own a condo together in Los Angeles, where both spend part of their time. When not in LA, Johnson lives in Nashville with husband and former college football player Andrew East. Together the couple vlogs on their popular YouTube channel. The former gymnast now goes by Shawn Johnson East.
In Her Words: “When I look back on it now I feel like there’s no possible way I could ever do that, especially now, so I don’t know how I did it at 16. But every time I watch videos or Nastia or I talk about it, or we bring up memories from the Olympic Village, it’s just a proud feeling. It’s almost like I’m the mom of the 16-year-old kid back then, and I’m really proud. I achieved a dream that very few get to succeed at. It was a pretty cool moment.”
Nastia Liukin competes on the balance beam at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 15, 2008 in Beijing.
In Beijing: Liukin’s signature performance, in her signature pink leotard, came in the all-around final, where she went head-to-head with Johnson but parlayed a huge uneven bars score to set her apart for gold. With three silver medals (team, balance beam, uneven bars) and a bronze (floor exercise), Liukin tied Mary Lou Retton (1984) and Shannon Miller (1992) for the most medals by a U.S. gymnast at a single Games.
Since Beijing: Making it one step further than Johnson, Liukin got as far as the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, but her attempt at a second Olympics as a bars and beam specialist ended there with a dramatic fall on bars. Just like her gymnastics, Liukin gracefully transitioned into the next stage of her life, graduating from NYU in 2016 and moving into the professional world.
Now: Not straying far from the sport, Liukin is a commentator for NBC while partnering with USA Gymnastics to put on the Nastia Liukin Cup, a gymnastics competition for top Junior Olympic athletes. Liukin, who grew up in Texas, now splits her time between Los Angeles and Boston, where she and fiancé Matt Lombardi are working on a mobile app called Grander, which is described as “a global community for the next generation of female athletes.”
In Her Words: “I still remember the jitters the night before, the pit in my stomach as I was lying in bed, the continuous play-by-play of my routines in my mind. I still remember that feeling when I walked into the arena and the rush of emotions when I received my medal. All I could think of were my parents and the time, effort and sacrifices they put into helping me get to where I was. As cliché as it sounds, they were the reason I made it to that point, and I still can’t ever thank them enough.” (via her recent blog on TeamUSA.org)
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Chellsie Memmel competes in the uneven bars at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 13, 2008 in Beijing.
In Beijing: An ankle injury ahead of the Games limited Memmel, the 2005 world all-around champ, to just uneven bars. After falling during a release move in the qualifying round, Memmel put up Team USA’s second-best bars score in the team final.
After Beijing: Memmel’s elite career ended in 2012 when her petition to the U.S. championships was controversially denied.
Now: Memmel’s connection to gymnastics lives on as a judge, including at nationals, and as a coach at her old gym near Milwaukee. Her 3-year-old son Dashel recently started taking classes there, and daughter Audrielle, born in November 2017, likely won’t be long.
In Her Words: “Looking back now I have so much more appreciation of what we were able to do as a team. Yes there’s still that little bit of disappointment that I didn’t have a chance to do everything, but I’m so happy that I was there and a part of the team and that we got a silver medal.”
Samantha Peszek performs her floor routine at the Visa Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 13, 2009 in Dallas.
In Beijing: Peszek performed on uneven bars during qualifications but did not compete in the team final, having injured her ankle during warm-ups for qualification.
After Beijing: Following one more season at the elite level in 2009, Peszek moved on to collegiate gymnastics in 2010-11 with UCLA. In four seasons with the Bruins, she won three NCAA titles, including the all-around championship as a senior in 2015.
Now: On Sept. 15, Peszek will call her first football game for the Pac-12 Network when Southern Utah visits Arizona. Peszek, who now lives in Santa Monica, California, also does gymnastics analysis for the network and in 2017 founded Beam Queen Bootcamp, which focuses on the notoriously difficult apparatus that she learned to love. “Imagine a female empowerment conference disguised for a young gymnast,” she said.
In Her Words: “When I was 5 I watched the 1996 ‘Magnificent Seven’ VHS tape over and over and over again. Part of that movie that stood out to me the most is when the girls were walking through the Georgia Dome and the crowd is chanting, ‘U-S-A, U-S-A.’ I had forgot all about that until I walked into the Beijing arena. … Even though it was in China I looked around for the first time and saw more American flags than Chinese flags, and all I heard was everybody chanting, ‘U-S-A, U-S-A.’ To me it was like I was living my dream. At that moment, I did it.”
Alicia Sacramone competes on the balance at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 13, 2008 in Beijing.
In Beijing: The team captain, Sacramone, 20, had uncharacteristic struggles during the team final, falling on both floor exercise and balance beam, the latter coming after a long delay that she said caused her to lose her focus. However, Sacramone came back four days later to finish fourth on vault.
After Beijing: Of all the 2008 Olympians, Sacramone might have come closest to qualifying for another Olympics. The 2010 world vault champion, Sacramone was also on the 2011 team that won a world title. However, the U.S. had another top vaulter in 2011 world champ McKayla Maroney, with only the latter making the 2012 Olympic team. With 10 medals, Sacramone retired as the most decorated American at world championships.
Now: Sacramone married former Notre Dame and NFL quarterback Brady Quinn in 2014 and now goes by Alicia Quinn. Like Memmel, she is now a mother of two, having given birth to daughter Teagan in July. Her first daughter, Sloan, was born in 2016. The family lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
In Her Words:
8/8/08 pic.twitter.com/NE5WftN4E1— Alicia Quinn (@ASAQ_3) August 8, 2018
Bridget Sloan performs her balance beam routine at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 10, 2008 in Beijing.
In Beijing: The youngest member of Team USA at 16, Sloan joined Johnson and Liukin in doing all four events in the qualifying round, and with the 11th best score she would have made the all-around finals if not for the two-per-country rule. Sloan contributed on vault in the team final.
After Beijing: Sloan came right back from Beijing to win the 2009 world all-around title, and then she competed through the 2012 Olympic trials. Though she fell short of London, Sloan’s distinguished gymnastics career continued at Florida, where she won nine NCAA titles before graduating in 2016.
Now: Raised near Indianapolis, Sloan realized during college that “I’m not a Midwest girl.” So she stayed in Florida. Now living in Orlando, Sloan works in industrial equipment sales, and though she’s happily retired from competing she stays involved in the sport as a commentator for SEC Network.
In Her Words: “There were millions of people watching you, but the amount of American flags in the arena was so, not overwhelming, but you look around and you’re like, ‘Wow. They’re like really rooting for us.’ I don’t think people understand what that means as an athlete and what that meant representing your country and seeing so many supporters there in Beijing. It was incredible.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.