ASHBURN, Va. — As her husband prepared for his first snap in an NFL game, former Olympic gold-medal gymnast Shawn Johnson East experienced something new at a sporting event: nerves. In tense situations as a gymnast, she retreated to what she controlled. Nerves vanished. Now? There was no preparation for being the wife of the Washington Redskins‘ long-snapper.
In Jacksonville on Dec. 16, Andrew East was preparing to send the ball back on the potential winning kick. A fan sitting in front of her, knowing East was her husband, turned and said, “Just make sure he doesn’t snap it over his head and lose the game for everyone.”
“I literally thought I was going to throw up or pass out,” Johnson said. “I’m not kidding when I say I was more nervous than when I was at the Olympics.
“At the Olympics, I trained my whole life to be there and compete and tune it out. When you show up to your husband’s first NFL game, I can’t control it. I don’t know what’s going to happen; I don’t know how he’s feeling. It’s really hard to be a spectator.”
But East will be the first to tell you that Johnson has helped him as a long-snapper. The journey he finally completed — playing in an NFL game for the first time — can be traced, in part, to her experiences.
“She’s been through so many high-pressured situations that she knows what someone needs,” East said. “So she always says something like, ‘Hey, look, you’re prepared and you’re ready for this and this is what you’ve been training for.'”
East did the work on his own, of course. Many others helped along the way as well. Still, it hasn’t been easy. Since 2015, he has been cut seven times by five organizations, including by Kansas City a month after the couple became engaged. In college at Vanderbilt, CBS Sports rated him as the No. 1 long-snapper. But, he said, he overanalyzed every component of snapping.
“When I was in Kansas City, I was having anxiety attacks because I was overthinking everything,” East said.
That’s where his wife helped. She knew the mentality needed to perform such a singular act — she won Olympic gold on the balance beam in 2008.
“She really walked me through that,” East said. “Just building confidence in myself. That’s what gymnastics is all about. You’re up there solo as a 16-year-old girl. It’s all about having confidence — you can do this; you’re ready for it. It’s the constant support and encouraging things she says.”
“I’m not kidding when I say I was more nervous than when I was at the Olympics.”
Johnson was competing on the international stage starting around age 15 and won gold a year later in Beijing.
“Being on a balance beam or long-snapping, it’s like you make one mistake and you’re done,” she said. “It’s terrifying, but it helps because I do relate to it and understand the pressure. I can help and support him.
“One of the most important things I noticed in his first season was when the margin of error is so small, when there’s such big pressure on such a technical move, the more you think about it, the worse things go. The more mistakes happen. I remember talking to him a lot about trying to get into the mindset that this is just another game; you know how to do it and don’t let yourself get into the mentality of, ‘I’m in an NFL game. I can’t make a mistake,’ because you will.”
East listened. Before his snap on the winning field goal at Jacksonville, he focused on just getting the ball to holder Tress Way. It’s not just his wife’s words that matter to him; she also has supported him bouncing around the country pursuing his dream.
“She’s just been a rock,” East said.
East’s father, Guy, was a long-snapper at Purdue. He clearly understands the job. East’s brother, also named Guy, is a professional cyclist and, in fact, is the reason Andrew and Johnson met. After meeting Johnson at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, he was convinced she and Andrew would make a good pairing. Guy proved prescient.
Johnson is now the constant in East’s life, a reminder of how to get things done. Her gravitational pull into celebrity status for East has been strong, too. Their engagement, and subsequent marriage, was covered in People Magazine. They were on “Celebrity Family Feud.” He once did radio row at the Super Bowl; or, rather, was there with his wife.
“There are so many moments I have to humble myself,” East said. “Because it’s like, ‘Oh, this is my time to shine.’ That’s what I want to think, but really it’s hey, in our marriage we’re doing this together. We’ll show up to charity events and visit hospitals and see kids there and I’m an NFL player, so I want kids to be excited about me. But all they care about is the gold medal and seeing an Olympic gymnast.
“I’m happy to have achieved my dream, but if you look at how many gymnasts make the Olympics … it just blows my mind.”
East graduated from Vanderbilt with a civil engineering degree and an MBA and spent the past two years working for a private equity firm. He and Johnson have started their own online business, with everything from publications to fitness classes to a YouTube channel that as of today has more than 650,000 subscribers.
“It’s been wild, the events we’ve gotten to go to because of her reputation,” East said. “It never ceases to amaze me how much favor she has in every sector she’s in. Everyone loves her. She has a phenomenal reputation. Props to her for building and maintaining that; it’s not an easy thing to do.”
There’s an easiness to their relationship and an evident pride when one talks about the other. That’s why Johnson was emotional watching her husband finally reach his goal. She was in a new role, one she embraces.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen how many ups and downs and emotional roller coasters he’s been on and how frustrated he got and how hard he worked and seen him think of quitting, thinking it wasn’t for him and it wouldn’t ever happen. I remember him over and over saying, ‘I just want to play one game. I just want to make it to say I did it.’ To see him cross that finish line is incredible. It gives me goosebumps. To be his wife in the stands and watch it play out is pretty special.”