Shannon Miller is the most decorated American gymnast in history and was a part of the celebrated “Magnificent Seven” who won team gold in Atlanta in 1996. Here, she looks back on a remarkable Olympic career that began in Barcelona in 1992, when she was just 15 years old, and reveals how those experiences also helped her in her battle against cancer in 2011
WHAT THE OLYMPIC GAMES MEAN TO ME
The Olympic Games mean so many different things to me. As an athlete, it meant the opportunity to represent my country in competition and show the skills I had been working on, trying to perfect, for years. As a young girl, it meant learning and understanding the bigger goal of the Olympic Games – to bring people together. As a mother, it means the opportunity to talk to my children about sports they’ve never seen before and imparting the Olympic ideals in a way that is fun and exciting. Of course, as an Olympic fan the Games give me the opportunity to learn about the athletes now in competition, and to enjoy being with family and friends while we cheer on these outstanding athletes!
MY FIRST GAMES
I was a very modest, very shy 15-year-old [in Barcelona in 1992]. On top of that, I wasn’t expected to make that team. I had dislocated and broken my elbow just a few months prior to the Games. I was just happy to be on the team and have the opportunity to compete. When I came home with five Olympic medals I had no idea or real understanding of that accomplishment. I was back in the gym a few days later working on new skills and looking to the next competition. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand that the Olympic Games were a big deal or wasn’t appreciative of that experience. On the contrary, I had so much fun; I wanted to do it again!
At such a young age, I didn’t really understand the magnitude of the Games. I had competed at a World Championship the year prior, so the size of the immediate audience wasn’t the biggest shock. It was understanding that millions of people around the world were also watching. I always loved having a large audience; I would use that support to help me through some of my more difficult skills or routines. However, the aftershock of media and cameras after the competition was over was quite shocking.
COMPETING IN A ‘HOME’ GAMES
The Olympic Games in 1996 were different for me in many ways. I was older – a veteran at the ripe old age of 19 – and had a better understanding of the Games beyond the competition floor. It was more nerve-racking in some ways. I wanted so badly to do well on home soil and win a gold medal for my country. I also think I had that added understanding that this was my last Olympic Games.
MY FAVOURITE OLYMPIC MEMORIES
There are so many great memories, but I think standing on the medal podium with my team as we received the USA’s first-ever Olympic team gold medal in women’s artistic gymnastics was absolutely magical. There is nothing like standing up there seeing the American flag being raised to the sound of your national anthem. Simply amazing.
I can also still remember the day we arrived in Barcelona at the Olympic Village. The first athletes we bumped into were some of the “Dream Team”, the 1992 US Olympic basketball team. They were all very sweet and took time out to say “hello”. As a young athlete, a little homesick having already been away for two weeks, it was comforting to meet other athletes from different sports and gain that understanding that we were all in this together.
HOW THE GAMES CHANGED MY LIFE
The Olympic Games certainly gave me a larger platform for the things I do today. Growing up very shy, I had to learn quickly how to deal with the media and how to find my voice. I wasn’t comfortable talking about myself, or my personal accomplishments, but learned over time that I could take that platform and use it to help others.
In addition, I truly believe that the life lessons I learned through sport and through that journey to the Olympic Games were the most important that I’ve ever learned. It’s those lessons that have helped me in business, as a mother, and most definitely through my cancer battle.
THE OLYMPIC VALUES
During my first Olympic Games, I learned a lot about the Olympic values and, of course, the Olympic spirit. For me, it was an opportunity to be a part of an event that was so much more than gymnastics or competition. It was amazing to feel like a part of a much larger family. I was really excited to share that with my children before the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
MY LIFE AFTER THE GAMES
I don’t know that the transition is easy for any Olympic or professional athlete, especially for those who retire at a young age. It took me a few years to really figure out who I was without gymnastics, without training over 40 hours a week with my sports family. However, the lessons learned through sport really helped me. My parents’ focus on education for me allowed me a softer landing because I had that foundation.
After the Olympic Games in 1996, I finished my undergraduate degree in marketing and entrepreneurship from the University of Houston and went on to get my law degree from Boston College. I had the goal of starting my own company and foundation. In 2007, I started the Shannon Miller Foundation, which fights childhood obesity by reducing barriers to physical activity for children. We now support over 8,000 children through our in-school running clubs. In 2010, I launched my company Shannon Miller Lifestyle with a focus on health and fitness. These days I have the wonderful opportunity to speak professionally and focus on ways that we can all make health and fitness a part of our everyday lifestyle. Of course, I also like to stay involved with gymnastics and do so as an analyst and commentator, which allows me the best of both worlds!