As with most events in Shawn Johnson's life, it can be traced back to the Olympics.
Because that's where the then-20-year-old gymnast was—four years after she nabbed three silvers and a gold at the 2008 games in Beijing—when she received an interesting proposition. Purportedly she was in London to represent USA Gymnastics as the brand's most recognizable face from the games prior and also to cheer on cyclist pal Taylor Phinney. She was hardly expecting to find herself face-to-face with a wannabe matchmaker.
But as she chatted up Phinney's teammate, Guy East, the biker became convinced that the bubbly 4-foot-11 powerhouse was simply perfect for his little brother, a 6-foot-2 football long snapper heading into his sophomore year at Nashville's Vanderbilt University.
"I thought it was insane," Johnson would later tell local paper The Tennessean, but she didn't protest when he pushed Andrew East onto a flight bound for Los Angeles, where she was cha-cha-ing her way to a second place finish on the all-star edition of Dancing With the Stars.
From East's perspective, "I thought that the date went really well," the 33-year-old shared in their shawn johnson + andrew east YouTube series, recounting their origin story for nearly a million subscribers. Johnson, though left somewhat charmed by that initial outing, was less confident. Or, as she put it in the video, "It took Andrew nine months to convince me to go on a second date."
Date nights are still hard to come by these days—but for the very best of reasons.
Some seven years after that first medium-successful date, the athletes welcomed Drew Hazel East on Oct. 29, 2019 after a tough, 22-hour labor. "I went in with such a stubborn mindset of thinking the only way I could bring our baby into the world was naturally," Johnson shared of the experience. "No meds no intervention. At 14 hours when I chose to get an epidural I felt guilty. At 22 hours when we were told I had to get a c section I felt like I had failed."
Then, she finally had the chance to hold her baby girl: "Being told everything went well and she had made it to us safely I could have cared less," she continued. "My/our world no longer has anything to do with us but everything to do with her. It's all for her and I will forever do anything for this girl that I love more than I ever could imagine. A love no one can ever prepare you for."
A love the couple came awfully close to missing out on. Because there were several points during that first year together when they could have decided they just weren't destined to be teammates.
"We had gone on one date, this was, like, in 2012. But I didn't really consider it a date," Johnson recalled in that YouTube video of the limbo they remained in from that fall until the following summer. "So in between, like, during the nine months, I went on a date with other guys." And one lucky suitor just happened to play ball with East. "I didn't think I was ever going to see you again," she reasoned of dating one of his friends and teammates. "So to me it was kind of like, I met this guy, he asked me on a date, whatever."
To be clear, the Indianapolis native was also dating around, as a football player on a major college campus is likely to do. But he didn't give up on the person he considered the gold standard of girlfriends.
"I texted her once, no response. I texted her twice, no response. Following up on our awesome first date," he shared. "And then I texted her three times, I was like, you know what? I have to have some self-respect, dang it. And this is the last time I'm gonna send if she doesn't respond."
His third time was a charm, with the athlete answering query about candy bars by sharing, that, actually, 3 Musketeers was her favorite. She just wasn't sure yet if she was sweet on him.
Not all that far removed from a serious relationship with fellow Iowan Ryan Edwards (incidentally, he was also a footballer, playing defensive back for the University of Iowa), she explained, "I wasn't in a place in my life where I was ready to date serious."
So she ghosted East, just a little.
She'd answer the occasional text, but when it came to making plans for a second face-to-face, she was admittedly a bit flaky. Following a missed connection in Nashville, Johnson turned up in East's home state as the grand marshal for the 2013 Indianapolis 500 parade.
"I didn't know Andrew was in town," she said, "but he goes to the Indianapolis 500 every year, which has been a tradition of ours ever since we started dating....So he's texting me, and he's like, 'My dad saw you in the parade. If you have any free time, do you wanna go to a movie?' And I was like, okay, okay, I can do this, I can do this.' And I was like, 'Yes, I will go to the movies with you tonight.'"
Except, she didn't.
Once again spooked by her own nerves ("I wasn't a smooth dater," she allowed) she texted him to cancel, but redeemed herself the following day when he asked to meet up at the main event. Though her entire day was committed to media sessions, interviews and general schmoozing, she lied about needing to use the restroom and snuck outside.
"I see Andrew, and I was just giddy," she recounted. "I thought you looked adorable." He found her downright radiant. "The first date I saw Shawn smile and I was like, angel, that's the girl," he said. "She smiled again and I was hooked again."
Their future was sealed when she included a photo they'd taken together on her Instagram feed, the millennial version of wearing someone's pin. "When she posted that picture and she's texting me, she said, 'Hey it was really good to see you,' and then I knew it," said East. "I was like, all right, this is it."
He wasn't wrong.
The twentysomethings enjoyed their first official date that summer when East invited Johnson to join him at Nashville's CMA Fest. "It was literally the cheesiest, dumbest, not smooth text message ever," she said of his digital missive in which he referenced how football had taught him to persevere when things are tough and so he was going to keep pushing until he got what he wanted.
"It was just absolutely a beautiful piece of poetry," he countered. And whether or not that is true, it worked. Because as a widely lauded Olympic athlete, Johnson had been courted by smooth, she had dated smooth, she was well aware of what smooth and polished and just a liiiiiiitle calculated looked like.
"You were so rough around the edges that it was comical, but the sincerity, that authenticity, it was so genuine. I just trusted you and I loved it," she explained to East. "And it was because of that I was like, fine, I'll give this guy a shot."
She agreed "on the spot" to book a flight to Nashville. And 24 hours—and one epic make-out session on the 50-yard line of the Vanderbilt stadium—into what would become a four-day date, she found herself opting out of a trip to Chicago to spend more time with the guy she was suddenly convinced she would marry.
Sitting at the airport waiting for a flight back to L.A., she downloaded an entire Josh Garrels album, East having introduced her to the Indiana-bred folk singer as they tooled around his town, and phoned her mom.
"She was like, 'Well, how did it go? Are you in Los Angeles?'" Johnson said. "I was like, 'No, I canceled all my plans. I stayed in Nashville. I'm just leaving Nashville and this guy is perfect. He's literally perfect."
Four months later, she had relocated to Tennessee. And less than two years after that, she was accepting his proposal mere moments after she threw out the first pitch at a July 2015 Chicago Cubs game. By the following April, they were marrying in front of 350 guests at a private Nashville farm, Sara Fried putting together an affair that was equal parts romantic and sentimental.
Garrels provided the soundtrack for their first dance.
"Take my hand, I won't let go. We've waited so long. And all my life, I walked alone. To you, my heart, my home"
It would be even longer until they could settle into the thick of marriage, putting down roots in a permanent home. The morning after their wedding, the couple hopped a 6 a.m. flight out to Oakland, Calif., where East had just been signed to play with the Raiders. By August he'd been released, only to be picked up by the Los Angeles Rams the following March. That two-month stint was followed by brief stops with the Raiders (again), the Jacksonville Jaguars and, most recently, the Washington Redskins.
Johnson, meanwhile, though officially retired from gymnastics in 2012 due to a torn ACL, remains one of the sport's most public ambassadors. As such she spent much of 2016 on a cross-country tour with Team USA after serving as commentator at the Rio de Janeiro games. All told, save for the four months they spent holed up in an Oakland Hampton Inn, they spent more time apart than together.
"It was a long few months, we went through hard things," she told People as they approached that first anniversary in 2017. "He got cut from the NFL and tried out for another team, we were both going through stressful times in life."
The most trying, by far, came that October when Johnson learned she had miscarried mere hours after discovering she was pregnant. "I kind of felt broken as just a person," she told E! News. In an effort to heal, she found herself spending hours on the Internet, devouring anecdotes from other women who'd endured the same anguish.
"I desperately wanted to hear other people's stories and how they handled it and how they healed and how they mended themselves from that experience," she explained. "And I would just sit in front of the computer for hours, reading comments and stories, and piece by piece, I kind of built this community that helped me get back on my feet."
Still, when they learned in early 2019 that she was expecting again, they felt equal parts thrilled and terrified. "Both of us, being athletes, we're used to people saying, 'Eat this, do that,' and you can fix it," she said. "With a baby, in a pregnancy, there's really nothing you can do except wait. So for us, it was really scary and we kind of just leaned on each other to pray our way through it."
But as her due date grew closer, their excitement began seeping in as Johnson indulged cravings ("Bagel sandwiches—that's about it"), took a stab at guessing the baby's sex (she was leaning toward boy), locked in their names (Drew, ultimately, was named after "the most incredible person I know...her daddy," Johnson shared) and began envisioning what type of mom and dad they might become.
"I feel like we'll probably be overbearing parents just because we're so excited and we want so much for our kid—in a good way," the Philips Avent spokesperson told E! News. "Like, we want to show him the world and we want to teach him so many things."
So far, though, they have been the students, self-described perfectionist Johnson mastering the art of going with the flow and taking it easy on herself.
The lessons started early, Johnson having to scrap not only her birth plan but her notions of exactly how she would nourish her little lady. With Drew struggling, their nursing sessions became a full-on wrestling match that left both sides in tears. So desperate to ensure her daughter was, you know, fed, she gave her bottles of pumped milk.
Calling in reinforcements in the form of a lactation consultant, the Nashville resident was ready to get down to business and trouble shoot the situation. But when she informed the expert that she'd bottle-fed her daughter, "It was kind of like, 'Oh, well you've probably already ruined it. I don't think she'll go back,'" Johnson recalled to E! News of that initial consult.
As the professional detailed all the mistakes she felt Johnson had made by feeding her baby, "I just felt sad because at that point, as a mom, especially that early on, you're just trying to figure it out. You don't know anything. You don't know how to do anything. And I was trying to feed my kid and I was trying to keep her happy and make sure she was gaining weight," she says. "And to feel like I had failed her, I felt so guilty and just defeated."
Thankfully East wasn't about to let the decorated Olympian take the L. Jumping into action, he rounded up a chorus of voices to the narrative that fed is best—"I started talking to our pediatrician and nurses and friends and they were all saying, 'Stop stressing. You don't need to breastfeed. Pump. If you can't pump enough, use formula.' It was just so easy for them to say it," said Johnson—and began doing his research.
That's just how the pair function, each eager to make sure they're not leaving their teammate hanging.
The crash-course in nutrition was undeniably stressful, recalled Johnson, "but I think it was a good first thing for us to go through to kind of set up the whole kid thing because kids are complex."
Because for every photo of the potential future gymnast on a balance beam, there are a handful or so mini meltdowns.
Like the time Johnson—with the aid of numerous calls to her pediatrician—couldn't figure out what was making Drew throw up after each feeding. (Spoiler alert: bottle nipples have various flow sizes, a little-known fact she discovered the hard way.) Or those middle-of-the-night why-won't-she-stop-crying moments "when it's two a.m. and you're both super tired," recalled East, "and there are sound machines blaring and you can't hear anything so you end up always being frustrated and mad at each other, really, for no reason."
But even with all of that—and eye roll-inducing commentary from followers that inform her she doesn't dress her daughter in enough pink ("Everyone believes that I truly wanted a boy because my baby shower was green and blue") or that she must be freeeeeeeezing without socks—parenting, for all of its literal and figurative messiness, has also brought this ineffable, sometimes bewildering sense of joy.
"I feel like people try to explain that love and affinity you feel for your kid, but you don't get it until you actually have a kid," Johnson told E! News.
In the thick of sleep deprivation and constant diaper changes, the tough situations can feel all-consuming, admitted East. "It's so much easier to share the hard parts. Like, hey, you're not getting a lot of sleep or the baby is screaming a lot or it's tough on, you know, the marriage. But it's so hard to voice and convey the message of how awesome it is," he explained. "It's like this ambiguous sense of fulfillment. And there's nothing like knowing pretty much all the details of a human being and seeing them learn and grow."
So no surprise, really, that they were both eager to give little Drew a sibling as soon as possible, with Johnson and East announcing the arrival of their son July 20. ""We are absolutely in love with our little man," the couple told E! News. "Drew is so sweet with him—you can tell she's already such a great big sister."
As for their marriage, that's never been better. "He's the best father ever. I mean, I feel like we parent completely different, in different ways. And yet just watching him be a dad is so cool," Johnson shared.
She likens it to getting a new view into how he treats her in their union. "You can never step back to see how your significant other loves you. You can feel it, but you can't see it," she explained. "And now being able to actually see him love someone and take care of a kid is so special." Good as gold, really.
(Originally published Oct. 24, 2019, at 7:30 a.m. PT)