The most decorated gymnast in American history, Shannon Miller, holds seven Olympic medals, 59 international medals, and 49 national medals. More than half are gold.
She dominated the sport throughout the '90s, and is the only American to win two consecutive World All-Around titles. She is also the only athlete to have her name listed in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame twice, for both her team and individual efforts.
After retiring from the Olympics, Miller earned undergraduate degrees in marketing and entrepreneurship, and her law degree while attending Boston College. She became an advocate for health and fitness for women and children, and founded Shannon Miller Lifestyle to support that passion.
She is an ovarian cancer survivor, author, radio talk show host, sports commentator, wife and mother. (Her second child is due this summer.) On Tuesday, March 12, she will serve as the keynote speaker at YMCA of South Palm Beach County’s 11th Annual Prayer Breakfast.
We were humbled to speak with this accomplished woman, and ask her about her gymnastic career, her battle with cancer, her family and what she would still like to attempt in her already successful life.
When you were just 12 years old, you placed third at the 1989 Olympic Festival. When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career as an athlete?
For me, it wasn’t something I knew I wanted to do right away. I had never really watched gymnastics on television. I didn’t know about famous olympians, like Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comăneci. I was too busy jumping on my parents' furniture. I wasn’t one of those kids who at 5 years old said, “I want to be an Olympic gold medalist."
Really it wasn’t until the age of around 12, when I became part of a national team. I got to wear that red, white and blue uniform, and go out and represent my country on the international stage, and I found out real quickly that it was such an honor. It meant so much more than just competing for myself or even for my gym club. I wanted to do that as much as possible and on the biggest stage possible, and of course for gymnasts that’s the Olympic games. So it was really around age 12 that that dream began.
In 2000, you withdrew from Olympic Trials in Sydney, Australia after an injury. What factors impacted your decision to stop competing at that time?
I had come out of retirement that January in 2000, after three years off, so it was one of those times in my life where I thought, if I’m going to go for it, I need to go for it now, so that in a year I don’t look back and wonder, “Gosh, what if I would have tried?’ I just never wanted to think, “What if?” So I went full out, as much as I could. I injured my knee at an event prior to the trials and was able to come back strong enough to compete the first day of trials. And then re-injured it during the competition...[but] everything checked out fine with the physician off the floor.
I’ll put it this way, for an athlete, you know when you are injured and can push through. As a top athlete you have to know when it’s safe and when it’s not safe to just keep pushing through. My knee was giving out on me, and that’s not a safe position to be in when you are doing double flips and twists. It was really a safety concern as far as this was not something I needed to risk my life over.
I made it as far as I could. If they decided to select me for the team at that point, I felt like I would be able to get ready in time, but if not, it just wasn’t meant to be.
You have such an accomplished athletic resume. Is there something you are most proud of in your gymnastic career?
As far as my gymnastics career, that’s a really difficult question. I want to say the golds at the Olympic games in 1996, of course. That was obviously a huge moment with both team and individual golds. To be able to cap off my career with that was incredible. But then I also think of that first international competition that I won in Italy and that’s really what turned the tides for me and really allowed me to go home and say, “Yes, I know this is what I need to do. I’ve tasted it and I love it and this is what I have to continue doing.” So there are these other moments that maybe not everyone else is aware of, but I know for me they were big turning points in my career.
After retiring from the Olympics you earned your undergraduate and law degrees. You founded your company, Shannon Miller Lifestyle. You speak across the country about childhood obesity. Is there anything you are still hoping to accomplish?
I think I will always have goals. Right now, the focus is on my second child. And then as far as my company and my work, just to be creating as many avenues for women as possible to make their health a priority. That’s my goal and my mission with the company.
With my foundation, I want to make sure every child has an opportunity to find out how physical fitness can be fun and have the opportunity to participate.
There are a lot of goals, some small, some big. I’m one of those types that I will never be without a goal...I want to learn to play tennis!
In January 2011 you were diagnosed with ovarian cancer. You underwent chemotherapy and are now cancer free. What did you learn from that experience? Do you still worry about your health? Do you feel that you approach life differently now?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I think many survivors will tell you that, or anyone who has been through a major illness or accident. Part of it is, “Oh my goodness, I realize I’m not as invincible as I thought I was. What if it happens again?” It kind of opens your mind up to the realization that anything could happen at anytime. And that’s kind of a little bit of a negative thought, and so I kind of to counter that [with] “Yeah, so you better to live life to the fullest, each and every day.”
I feel like I have a better balance now in my life. I always tried to maintain a pretty good balance, but now it’s just a lot more clear cut for me as far as enjoying all I do every single day and every single moment.
You published a free e-book, "Competing With Cancer," on your experience surviving cancer. Why was it important for you to write this novel and make it easily accessible to everyone?
It was kind of a labor of love. It was therapeutic. I wrote it after I finished chemotherapy and I felt like there were so many people that had helped me to get through my treatment and focus on the future and the possibilities and life ahead. I wanted to, in some small way, do the same thing for others. I felt like I could possibly lend a voice to the many folks going through these issues, whether they are going through it themselves, or they have a family member or loved one going through it. I called it "Competing With Cancer." It’s how I used the lessons through the Olympics, through sports, to help me battle the toughest battle I’ve ever faced.
It's about those baby steps, putting one foot in front of the other each day, and not being afraid to break down every once in a while. But making sure after you do that you get back up and keep going. I also wanted to combine it with tricks and tips that I had learned that maybe not everyone has access to. I have been dealing with makeup artists and that sort of thing, because of my job on television and whatnot. I was able to get these tips on makeup and skincare, and what to do when you do lose all of your hair and with that how you kind of lose your identity. Women are kind of looking for a way to feel comfortable. For some women they are absolutely fine, they don’t mind going out totally bald and with no makeup. The problem for other women is we are not comfortable with it, so how can we best become comfortable in our own skin during this time in our life?
You are expecting your second child this summer. Congratulations! How are you feeling? Do you know the gender?
We don’t know yet, but hopefully soon. We are really excited and I’ve been doing well. I think I was pretty sick for the first four months, I'm fine now. We are excited.
When was the happiest time in your life?
Oh goodness. I feel like I try to be happy in all parts of my life and just enjoy them. I don’t know if I could answer that because I was very happy in gymnastics. Not that every day was a piece of cake, but I loved training and competing.
I really enjoyed my education, college and law school. Yeah, it was tough. They were often rough days, but I enjoyed the thrill of it and the challenge of it.
I love being a mom. I love being a wife and a mom, and I’m really happy. I think I just have the personality where I really enjoy life and enjoy whatever’s next around the corner.
Shannon Miller will speak at the Boca Restort on Tuesday, March 12. For tickets and more information, please click here.