Former gymnasts Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin lived their Olympic dreams in 2008 when they earned individual gold medals and the team silver representing the United States in Beijing. Liukin and Johnson have stayed the best of friends in the eight years since they were competitors, and their new careers in media have kept both of them involved in the world of gymnastics and elite sports. They're back together at the Olympics in Rio, but this time from a very different perspective.
"Being back here and not being an athlete is bittersweet. I miss it, I'll forever miss it," Johnson tells Bustle, speaking from The Grand Hyatt Rio hotel, where the two are staying together. "I remember, for me in 2012, being given a credential that didn't say athlete on it was really weird, and a surreal moment, a humbling moment, but now we're just proud and excited to be here and excited for the girls."
Before the competition in Rio had started — and before Team USA had stepped onto the mats — the former Olympic champs were positive the women would walk away with some gold. Liukin and Johnson were so confident in Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian, and Gabby Douglas's ability to perform that they both agreed the team didn't need any advice from the veteran competitors.
"To be honest, I don’t really think they need too much advice. They're all really prepared, physically, more than they'll ever be in their entire lives," Liukin says. "At this point it's really a mental game, and so, if we both could share anything, it's just to stay focused."
"I think it's one of the strongest teams we've ever had," agrees Johnson. "I don't think they need any advice; they're more than ready, more than qualified, more than able to walk away with the gold."
And walk away with gold they did — Team USA blew the competition out of the water during the team all-around competition by an incredible margin of victory, but according to Liukin, the Final Five might not fully experience the reality of their achievement until they arrive home from Rio.
"You're standing there with a gold medal around your neck, and it's something that you've been dreaming about ever since you were a little girl. In the moment, it's really surreal, you don't really feel it," Liukin tells Bustle. "For me specifically, it hit me when I went back home and I saw all my family and my friends, and the celebrations started."
Now that both have moved on from their competition days, Johnson and Liukin are experiencing a very different side of the Olympics. Liukin is putting her gymnastics expertise by commentating the gymnastics events for NBC, and Johnson is utilizing her impressive social media knowledge by working with Yahoo's digital team to cover the Rio games. "Being on the other side now, we're able to experience Rio and the city and not just the competition, but really be able to experience it a little bit more," Liukin says.
Getting to see a different side of the Games means they get to share it with fans, too. Johnson and Liukin laughingly urge everyone to follow them on their various social media sites, not for the follower count, but because you could see something new and surprising from behind the scene. "Of course, you watch it on TV, but we get some access that not everybody at home does, so that would be the best way [to follow along]. And of course, [follow] all the other athletes as well," says Liukin.
As much fun as they are having in Rio, Liukin and Johnson can't help but reminisce about their own Olympic experience in Beijing, proving that once you're an Olympian, you're always an Olympian.
"You blink and all the sudden it's over and you're back home," Liukin says. "Shawn and I were actually roommates in Beijing and we kept a journal that we wrote in every single day because everything happens so quickly, and you want to remember little things that you might not remember eight, 10, 12 years from now."
The Olympic experience is coming to a close for Team USA, but if they're as lucky as Johnson and Liukin, they'll stay friends for a long time. The bond shared between teammates is only strengthened by the Olympics, and Johnson and Liukin are proof that that bond can last well beyond the games.