Stripping athletes? Shawn Johnson's 6 Olympic secrets

TODAY

Millions watch the Olympics from home, but only a select few experience the Games the way I did in Beijing. Here are six secrets from an athlete's perspective:

1. Meeting Team USA is a revealing affair.
Every U.S. athlete heads to the same connecting city for a "process" day before shipping off to the Games. That's where competitors are credentialed, drug-tested, provided Team USA apparel and debriefed about the dos and don'ts in representing America. 

The best part is going from room to room filling up a HUGE shopping cart with free gear. It's quite a way to meet the other Team USA members; athletes strip to their skivvies for a mad dash to find the best-fitting sizes. Gymnasts are lucky: We're left with the extra-smalls. 

2. Olympians don't fly first class.
Oh yes, Olympians sit in the back by the toilets just like everyone else. But it's not all fun and games: Halfway through the flight some gymnasts actually do small workouts down the aisles. It's a fun ride as the majority of the passengers are sporting the red, white and blue.

3. Athletes can be tested for drugs at ANY time.
You could be sleeping, eating, competing or chatting with Matt Lauer and the World Anti-Doping Agency officials will just show up for a drug test. It's all chosen by a random draw, but I swear some people's names like mine! — seem to pop up a few more times than others. It's quite a process, too. You have NO privacy during the testing process, and stage fright is the worst (I speak from experience). You can be stuck in the testing process for hours.

4. Dorms are nice, if a little plain.
Olympian housing is divided by countries. There's a cool tradition that you hang your nation's flag outside your room, making the village a neat place as everywhere you look there are different colors flying high. It's a different story inside the dorms, which are stark white when you arrive. Many athletes decorate them so they feel more like home. The apartments also include game rooms, salons and massage tables. There's also a media center to keep you connected to loved ones.

5. Cultures mix in the cafeteria.
Country barriers break down in the commissary. It's an awesome place. Picture an eatery that's as big as a football field with catered food that can accommodate every athlete. The most popular place in Beijing? McDonald's. The line spanned the entire cafeteria front to back every single day! 

6. Gold isn't the only metal you compete to win.
Forget the events! There's a more prestigious competition happening between athletes and spectators: pin trading. You are constantly bargaining, bartering and begging for these coveted metals. And the stakes are high: Your rank among international athletes seemingly has nothing to do with your medal haul but by your pins! And you're treated like royalty if you have a rare one.

Gymnast Shawn Johnson, TODAY.com's special correspondent, won a gold and a silver medal in Beijing. 

More from TODAY.com:
10,000 and counting! Pin collector chases Olympic metal
Video: Savannah gets inside look at Athlete Village
Live blog: Follow athletes' tweets, Instragrams

More from Shawn Johnson:
Shawn Johnson's dare: On your marks, get set... jump for TODAY!
Shawn Johnson: Olympians should 'censor themselves' on social media
Shawn Johnson: 'Going to London is bittersweet'

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Discuss this post

I knew all this, from the news stories.

"Gymnasts are lucky: We're left with the extra-smalls."????? I don't even know how to comment about how wrong and vain this comment is.

    Reply#1 - Wed Aug 8, 2012 2:05 PM EDT

    Lighten up. Gymnasts are practically midgets. Sheesh.

    • 12 votes
    #1.1 - Wed Aug 8, 2012 3:36 PM EDT

    Vain? You do know she was referring to extra-small because gymnasts are SMALL, right? Not THIN, but actually SMALL.

    • 7 votes
    #1.2 - Wed Aug 8, 2012 5:59 PM EDT

    Shawn Johnson was only 4'9" when she competed. She has now grown to 5'1". Gymnasts are probably the smallest people to compete in the games. Like, the jockeys of the Olympics. She wasn't being vain at all.

    • 3 votes
    #1.3 - Thu Aug 9, 2012 8:16 AM EDT
    Reply

    Metals? How about "medals"?

      Reply#2 - Wed Aug 8, 2012 4:10 PM EDT

      She's not referring to medals. She's talking about metal pins. I don't know that "metals" has traditionally had that meaning, either, but it will now.

      • 2 votes
      #2.1 - Wed Aug 8, 2012 6:00 PM EDT

      I don't think you read through that section thoroughly. Imagine if athletes swapped their MEDALS. It would be ridiculous. "I'll trade you my gold for your bronze." It was a pun, plain and simple.

      • 2 votes
      #2.2 - Thu Aug 9, 2012 8:18 AM EDT
      Reply

      Yeah no kidding! The leading Chinese gymnast was all of 5'2". Get over it!

      • 4 votes
      Reply#3 - Wed Aug 8, 2012 4:39 PM EDT

      Dudes, I'm just as cynical as the next.

      But hey, this is Shawn Johnson.

      As far as I can see she is cute, and sweet.

      And she was a great representative of the US.

      Lighten up.

      • 6 votes
      Reply#4 - Wed Aug 8, 2012 8:11 PM EDT

      She comes off as just darling in this post - she's a real sweetheart. I am happy she is representing us !

        #4.1 - Thu Aug 9, 2012 2:20 PM EDT
        Reply

        Fun article by one in a long line of superb gymnastic representatives of our country. Shawn is gorgeous, funny, and as All-American as apple pie. JUST like Gabby Douglas! Whom I predict will be a media savvy commentator much like Shawn when she decides her gymnastics career is done. The London Olympics have been great fun, and, despite the negative comments of a certain American idiot who actually thinks he should be President, extremely well run.

        • 1 vote
        Reply#5 - Thu Aug 9, 2012 4:07 AM EDT

        I like reading about the backstories of the Olympics. I hope she writes more article or a book about her experiences during the games in Beijing as an athlete and now as an observer in London.

          Reply#6 - Thu Aug 9, 2012 11:17 AM EDT

          Pin trading's been a Big Thing for a long time now. One of the highlights of my week spent in Atlanta for the 1996 games was enjoying pin trading with both spectators AND athletes.

            Reply#7 - Thu Aug 9, 2012 2:32 PM EDT

            I admit I have always wondered how they divvied up all that great USA swag the athletes are wearing.

              Reply#8 - Thu Aug 9, 2012 2:43 PM EDT
              Comment author avatarAdam Ricevia Facebook

              After reading the ESPN article on what's going on behind closed doors at the Olympic Village, as told by the athletes, I know now that Shawn's list isn't all that happens.

                Reply#9 - Sat Aug 11, 2012 1:08 AM EDT
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