Shannon Miller is one of the most successful gymnasts in history. She competed at the 1992 Olympics in Spain winning five medals, three bronze and two silver, and at the 1996 Olympics in the USA where she won a gold on the balance beam and was a member of the historic "Magnificent Seven" team that won the gold medal in the team competition.
Now retired from gymnastics, Shannon is a wife and mother and has a company called Shannon Miller Lifestyle, which is focused on fitness, nutrition and healthy lifestyle. Having battled germ cell malignancy, a form of ovarian cancer, Shannon has also become an advocate for early detection and prevention awareness.
Shannon is truly an inspiration in and out of gymnastics, and her message of early detection is so important for teens to hear. Growing up as a young gymnast, I looked up to Shannon very much and I was completely honored to interview her.
Q: What got you started in gymnastics?
A: My sister. I was 5-years-old and had never watched gymnastics on TV and really had no idea what it was. She wanted to do gymnastics and I wanted to be just like my big sister, so I kind of followed her to the gym.
Q: When did you start thinking about the Olympics?
A: I wasn't one of those kids that knew I wanted to go to the Olympics at 5-years-old. The dream really began when I was 11 or 12 at an international competition in Italy.
It was the first international competition where I placed first. Having the opportunity to stand up there on the podium, see the American flag raised and hear the National Anthem made me think: I want to this on the biggest stage possible. That day was really when the dream began.
Q: Typically, female gymnasts retire after one Olympics. What made you decide to continue after the 1992 Olympics where you won five medals?
A: I just wasn't finished yet. Although I loved the medals and had a great run, I still loved doing the sport -- learning new skills and putting together interesting routines. Retiring at 15 just didn't cross my mind because I felt like I was just getting started. For me, it was just continuing to do something I loved.
I just thought: if I happen to be around four years from now and still loving it, then the Olympics will be my focus. The 1996 games being held in the United States also certainly helped because having the chance to compete on your home soil is such a wonderful experience for any athlete.
Q: At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, you and your teammates made history by becoming the first American women to win the team gold medal. You also won an individual gold medal on the balance beam. What was this experience like for you?
A: They were both amazing in different ways. In the team competition, we had worked as individuals and teammates but also as a country. We were a very tight-knit bunch and to be able to make history together was just amazing.
To be able to top it off with balance beam was so gratifying especially since I had a bit of a rocky Olympics. I started off with a bang on beam but had a stumble on floor during the all-around competition, which I never did in practice. That was kind of tough. To have balance beam as the last Olympic event of my career and capture the gold for my country was a great note to end my career on.
Q: In 2011, you faced another big challenge when you were diagnosed with germ cell malignancy, a form of ovarian cancer. What was receiving that diagnosis like?
A: Having that diagnosis certainly took the wind right out of me. I'm working, my company is involved with health and fitness and then to be hit with cancer was a really tough thing for me. It's been a blessing in many ways because I have been able to meet people that have truly inspired me and given me strength.
One of the reasons I was so vocal about my diagnosis and treatment was that I felt I could really be a voice not just for what I was going through but what so many other women across the country and the world are going through. To talk about it, to get screenings and to understand that early detection is so important because, if nothing else, it gives you options.
It has definitely been a roller coaster ride. I underwent surgery and later learned it was a higher-grade malignancy and I would have to do nine weeks of chemotherapy.
Q: During your chemotherapy treatments, many people, including me, admired how strong and positive you were throughout the process. How did you manage to be so strong and positive during that time?
A: I had a few weeks before I had to start chemo and it was important for me during that time to kind of rap my mind around what I was about to go through and to also do some research, educate myself and talk to other women who had been through it to find out what to expect.
I think it was also really important to rely on a lot of my mental training from gymnastics. I had a game plan for each day so that I continued to take those baby steps forward.
It is also important for people to know that not everyday was a great day. I tried to stay positive and keep my humor going but you have those days where you have strong emotions and get angry or sad and you ask "Why me?" "Why now?" and you just let it out. A friend told me that it was just like falling of the beam -- you get back up. Yes, you're probably going to fall again but the most important thing is just to get back up. Even on those bad days, that's what I tried to think of.
Q: What types of things did you do to help yourself get through the treatments both physically and emotionally?
A: For me, it was all about preparing my mind and body as much as I could prior to starting chemo and then trying to maintain some diet and health regimen while I was on chemo to help with recovery.
I was on a pretty rigorous chemo schedule and, when I talk about fitness through chemo, that means during bad weeks or bad days, if I could just get out and do a five-minute walk then that was really great for that day. I'm not talking about running miles or anything, I'm talking about things like walking, light yoga, really light weights -- things like that that would just help my body not atrophy because it does get quite easy to stay in bed under the covers. For me, that was a really important component.
Q: You mentioned using the mental training from gymnastics during chemo. Do you think your experiences in gymnastics helped you win your battle against cancer?
A: Absolutely. The mental strength that gymnastics teaches you is so critical to your life, especially going through this kind of battle. The perseverance -- the idea that if you just keep at it, you take those baby steps forward, learn from the mistakes you make and keep plugging away -- that you will get through this. Those were the types of things I worked with to really get through this. It doesn't mean embrace cancer, but to embrace what life throws at you.
My faith also played the number one role in getting me through and continuing to get me through this roller coaster ride. I just kept telling myself that God is going to bring me through it and there is a reason for it. If I can just help one other woman to make this experience better for her or if I can get one woman to get her screenings and exams -- whatever I could to do help.
Q: You have talked so much about the importance of preventive check-ups and screenings. What would you like to say to young people on the importance of having regular doctor appointments and preventive check-ups?
A: The late teens and early twenties is such an important time because you are going through so many life changes. You are going out, venturing on your own for the first time, making your own meals, deciding whether or not to go to the doctor and you are doing it all on your own. Even though we think we're invincible at that age, it is important to create a baseline for your future and make sure that you continue to get your exams and screenings.
The type of germ cell tumor I had actually tends to target the late teens and twenties. Many of us think we don't have to worry about cancer until we are in our 50s or 60s but that's unfortunately not the case. Cancer doesn't care how old you are or how many medals you have, and that's why it is important to get those health screenings. Not just for cancer, but things like heart disease, which is the number one killer of women.
Start early and don't be afraid of it, just educate yourself and take control of it. Make sure your cardiovascular health is well, your blood sugar is right, your cholesterol is good and just take care of your overall health.
Q: You have accomplished so much and truly demonstrated that dreams can come true with hard work and dedication. Do you have any advice for young people on fulfilling dreams?
A: For me, the best advice I received was when I was young was from my parents. They believed that there are no limits on your dreams if you're willing to work for it and, yes, there will be difficult times but there will also be great times if you follow your passion. Whatever you want to do, pursue it will passion and don't let others tell you that you can't accomplish something.
There were times in my career that I was told I was too small or too big to do certain skills. There is always going to be a reason why you can't do something; your job is to constantly look for the reasons why you can achieve your dreams.