Off the mat with Shannon Miller
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Fifteen years after the 1996 Olympic team won gold in Atlanta, Shannon Miller is still the most decorated US gymnast of all time. With seven Olympic medals and back-to-back world titles, she dominated the sport in the '90s. Miller, 34, is now married and has a son who turns two in October. Late last year, Miller was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and after undergoing surgery and nine weeks of chemotherapy, she's now cancer-free with a cure rate of 99%. We caught up with her at the U.S. gymnastics championships to find out how she's feeling, what else she's up to, and her thoughts on the current U.S. team.
espnW: Can you share a little about what the last year has been like?
Shannon Miller: Last year I went in for a regular exam and that's when they found a 7cm cyst on my ovary. They didn't really know what they were dealing with until they did the surgery. They took out my left ovary, and a couple of weeks later they got the pathology reports back and they said it was a higher grade malignancy than they had thought -- and they would really like me to do 9 weeks of chemotherapy.
This is a very rare form of ovarian cancer -- it's not epithelial cancer. This is a cancer that mainly shows in older teenager and women in their 20s, so it's not even on our radar usually. So, women, you need to go in and get those screenings! I had a great prognosis, but if I had waited, who knows? I felt totally fine; I had no symptoms.
espnW: How are you feeling now?
SM: I'm feeling really good, probably about 90 percent. I'm getting close. You walk out of treatment on your last day, expecting to go back to normal, but that's not how it works. So you have to cut yourself some slack.
espnW: What have you been up to since you retired from gymnastics?
SM: Let's see… I finished undergrad, went to law school, and I started my foundation, which I'm really proud of. Our goal is to fight childhood obesity. We currently have 3,000 children that we're working with and we'll have 7,000 by January. That's really exciting and really fulfilling for me. And then my company, Shannon Miller Lifestyles is such a passion for me. It's a health and fitness site for women, to open the lines of communication. I do a weekly radio show, and I talk to experts and women. I'll also be over in London next year doing a lot of commentary there, which I'm excited about.
espnW: It's been 15 years this summer since you won gold with the U.S. team in Atlanta. What stands out to you most from that meet?
SM: Three things. That first day, when we walked in to podium training and there were 40,000 screaming people -- for a day of training. It was just amazing to see the flags waving and hear them chanting USA. Then of course, winning the team gold. It was such a tremendous deal for us. And then on my very last event, to capture the gold on balance beam. It was the best way to end an Olympic competition.
espnW: The dramatic ending of the team competition -- with Kerri Strug's vault on an injured leg to secure the team gold -- has become a legendary Olympic moment. What was it like to live that moment?
SM: It was such a crazy night. I was one of those athletes that doesn't look at the leaderboard during the meet. I was third up in the vault lineup, so after I finished, I looked up at the leaderboard for the first time and thought, Holy cow, we're in first! And then to see Dominique miss was insane because she never missed a vault -- I was actually jealous of her for that! And then Kerri missed too. I think we were all doing math really fast then. I was thinking, I think we've still got it, but I don't know. Maybe we don't. You don't want to risk it. And then Kerri went for it. When you're in a competition like that you feel no pain, and it doesn't matter what just happened, you just go. And for her to put aside any issue and just go for it was absolutely amazing.
She had had an issue with her leg coming in -- it was already taped. But we actually had less information than the people watching it at home because we didn't have the commentary and the camera angles of her. And Kerri was just mobbed by a zillion people as soon as she finished. So we were just looking at each other, wondering if she was OK. We didn't get to see her until the second we walked out to go onto the floor to get our medals. In fact, they were yelling at us to get onto the floor to start the ceremony and we were saying, "Where's Kerri, we are not walking out onto the floor without Kerri!" And then she didn't have pants on, and she didn't even have time to get pants on. It was just one crazy time.
espnW: Was that the highlight of your career?
SM: There are highlights and then there are special moments. And when I look back I have this one moment that I always think of, and I know it was the turning point of my career. I was 12 years old I think, and it was one of my first international competitions. It was in Italy and it was the first international competition that I won. I had never really won anything. To be able to walk up there onto that podium, get a gold medal and stand there, seeing an American flag being raised, and hearing the national anthem -- it was that moment in time that I knew that this was what I wanted to do. That's when my Olympic dream began.
espnW: How do you feel about the direction the sport has gone in the last 15 years?
SM: I think there's good and bad. The equipment is much more safe. Really, every piece of equipment has had some change, to a small or large degree. Also, if you look at the medal count on both the men's and women's side now it's amazing. I think the '80s and '90s laid that foundation for the international status we have now as a country.
The Code of Points still needs to be worked out, though. When the athletes don't understand the Code of Points, you have issues. How are the spectators going to understand it? I think as a whole, the [loss of the] 10.0 has been a big hit to the sport. So many people watch gymnastics only every four years, and that's our chance to broaden the sport. But if they don't understand what's going on, I think you lose people.
espnW: What did you think watching the first night of the women's meet, with so many falls and mistakes?
SM: It's going to be a tough year. I think yesterday was a wake-up call. Right now we have to focus on fielding two six-man teams, one for worlds and one for Pan Am Games, and I don't know if we have enough people to do it. But in London I think we're going to be fine. The athletes just need some more time to compete their difficulty, and get that repetition in. And the girls who are making comebacks have plenty of time. Shawn Johnson is not looking to compete at worlds. Her big push is to be ready for London. So I think it's important to keep it in perspective for next year.
espnW: Who are you excited to watch in tonight's women's final?SM: I'm excited to see Chellsie Memmel. I am so proud of her. I know she doesn't have all the difficulty in her routines yet, but she's working on it. I'm very excited for Jordyn Wieber. I think she's doing great. I'm really interested in seeing Rebecca Bross. I think she's got the mentality and she's absolutely got the work ethic it's just whether she can fight back, especially after missing the first day. I think she can.
espnW: Are there any skills you've seen right now that you can't believe gymnasts are doing?
SM: Does every skill count? I can't believe floor. I can't believe how many tumbling passes they do. They do tumbling that we only imagined the guys could do.
espnW: Do you ever get up on a beam anymore?
SM: The last time I did gymnastics was in 2008. I actually went on tour with the 2008 team! They said they wanted the history of gymnastics -- I think they wanted the ancient history. But it was fun, and I had a chance to do floor and beam. Not that I did any big skills, but it was fun to get out there and enjoy it. But yes, I'm definitely finished now! Now I'm into golf, and I like yoga, and Pilates. The next thing I really want to learn how to do is play tennis.
espnW: Do you still think of yourself as a gymnast?
SM: I think of myself most as a mom now. I wear so many hats now, and they all mean so much to me. But I will always be a gymnast. Gymnastics is a very important part of who I am.