Shannon Miller (Part 2)

Most Decorated U.S. Gymnast

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Sports

Shannon Miller is the most decorated U.S. gymnast ever -- 7 Olympic Medals and 9 World Championship Medals. Her own website provides interesting information, not only highlighting her career as a gymnast, but also showing how she is helping others succeed. She is an inspirational speaker, a gymnastics teacher (giving clinics in balance beam), an author, and a law student. During our interview, Shannon shared how her trust in God has helped her at every turn.

What are the defining moments in your life? What moments have made you who you are?
My defining moments are in what most people would think of as failures, when I hit bottom or really messed up. That's when you show your true character. And for me, that's when I had to rely on God and my faith. When everything is going great (winning gold medals and hitting my routines), it is easy to be happy and nice. But when I have fallen off the beam, or I have just lost the competition, or I have had a really tough day and just want to crawl under the bed and hide from the world, it is at this point that I have to decide who I really want to be. It is during these times that I try to remember that if I keep my trust in God, then I will have the strength that I need to get back up on that beam or train harder for the next competition. He will help me in everything I need to do.

I also try hard to remember what is truly important in life. And it isn't medals and winning. The truly important things are my family, my friends, and a feeling of purpose in my life. I have had excellent role models. I want to be a good role model for others, which means trying to make the right decisions, even though sometimes it's hard to know what the right decision is. But I try to be still and listen for God's guidance.

In addition to handling pressure, gymnasts usually have to deal with fear. How did you handle fear?
Fear goes hand in hand with gymnastics, whether you're afraid to make a mistake or afraid you'll get injured. Fear has a way of creeping in at any moment. In gymnastics you constantly have to learn new skills, which are fun, but challenging. There would be certain skills that I really wanted to learn, but I was afraid to try them -- terrified that I would get injured or wouldn't do them right. But if I let fear take over, then I'd be done. I am a very competitive person, and I look at fear as the competition. I intend to win. When I start feeling fear creep in, I remind myself that God is the source of my strength and will help me. A Bible verse I kept in mind was:

Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness. (Isa. 41:10)

Were you always confident going into competitions, or were you learning new skills?
For the most part you train a variety of routines so you know exactly what you're doing going into a competition. But there were times in my career that I was not able to train the exact routines due to an injury or equipment problems. And there were times when Steve, my coach, would change my routines on the spot in the middle of the competition. Maybe two minutes before I would go up, he would realize I didn't have a certain skill that I needed, and he would need to change my routine. Not only did I have to remember the new routine, I also had to do whatever new skill was added without practicing it. While this was pretty difficult, it helped me in the long run because I got used to having to think on my feet and having to perform anything at any time. That helps in competition and in life because you never know what is going to come your way. You always have to be prepared for the unexpected.

You've talked so much about being prepared (last month's interview especially). Obviously, you had a great sense of discipline and a good work ethic. How did you gain a sense of discipline and work ethic?
I am sure I gained my work ethic from my parents and coaches. These were the people I was around the most growing up. I also remember watching the older girls in the gym work really hard. I wanted to be just as good as they were, and knew I would have to work even harder to get to that level.

My parents helped teach me a good work ethic with one simple sentence: "If you don't keep your grades up, you don't go to the gym." Education was very important to them. They knew that an education was going to last me a long time, whereas gymnastics would eventually go away. So I had to make sure that I was always getting my homework done no matter what. I learned to do it on planes, buses, and even during waiting time in between events while on tour! I remember taking a math exam in the dressing room at one tour stop. I was about half-way through the exam when they called my name. I went out, performed my beam routine, and came right back to the dressing room to finish my exam. The tour was the only time I had a tutor with me because we were on the road for several months, and I wanted to graduate from high school on time with my class.

And what role did discipline and a clear work ethic have in your success?
I think discipline and a strong work ethic have a huge role in my success. Without discipline I would not have been able to stick with gymnastics long enough to make it to my first Olympics, which took ten years. One thing my coach always brags about is how I never missed practice. Even if I was injured or sick, I would still come to the gym. He might have me just stretch and condition, but I was there and trying to do everything I could. I knew that all the other girls who wanted a spot on the team would be in the gym working hard.

I also think my work ethic has helped me in areas outside of gymnastics. My grades were better because I knew I had only a certain amount of time to get my homework done. I didn't really have the chance to procrastinate. These lessons have spilled over into every area of my life and should help me to succeed in my next career.

What are you doing now?
I just graduated from the University of Houston. I have degrees in marketing and entrepreneurship. I am starting Boston College law school in August. I also continue to do balance beam clinics for gymnasts across the country, do some corporate speaking, and help promote upcoming events for USA Gymnastics (such as our National Championships and World Championships). I am also preparing for a 30-city post-Olympic tour to begin in the fall of 2004. It will be fun to do some gymnastics again.

Is there anything you'd like to tell teens?
There are three things I like to tell people of any age, but especially teens:

  1. Always set goals -- short term and long term goals. If you don't set goals, you are not going to be moving forward.
  2. Never set limits on yourself. That is something my parents have really instilled in me from the very beginning. I could do and be whatever I wanted to be if I was willing to put forth the effort and work for it.
  3. Have fun. Remember to enjoy life. Obviously, you're going to have rough days, but you have to have fun and enjoy what you're doing. Life is too short not to enjoy it.

When did you set your goal for becoming an Olympian?
My actual goal for being an Olympian was not set until about 2 years before the 1992 Olympic Games. Most people think that I wanted to be an Olympian from when I was 5 years old, but that wasn't really the case. I never watched the Olympics growing up. And I wasn't even born yet when Nadia Comaneci competed. When I started gymnastics, I just loved learning to flip around and turn upside down. As I got older I really wanted to compete. Then I focused on making the State meet which led to Regionals which eventually led to National and International competition. And by the time I was competing internationally, all of a sudden the next step was the World Championships and Olympic Games.

You just took whatever step was in front of you.
Yes, and I think that it is really important to take each of those steps. If you set a goal too far ahead, you might be tempted to think it's impossible to achieve it. So if you can set short-term goals to get you to that long-term goal, you have a better chance of accomplishing that final goal.

Are there any stories that have helped you?
Lots! But I love the story about the "loaves and the fishes" (Matt. 14:17-21; 15:34-38 and all the Gospels) because it reminds me that whatever I need will be supplied, whether it is food or companionship in a time of loneliness. I'm never going to do without something that God knows I need. I'm always going to be taken care of as long as I keep my faith in Him.

So you had everything you needed growing up?
Pretty much. I turned professional when I was 13 because my parents were not going to be able to keep me in gymnastics. It can be an expensive sport. So there were sacrifices to be made. I gave up a chance for a gymnastics scholarship by turning professional. But in the end, I was able to pay for college without doing NCAA gymnastics.

I also had a wonderful support system. My family has always been here for me. They don't treat me any differently because I do gymnastics. I know that no matter what, they love me.

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Prov. 3:5,6)