Shannon Miller is the most decorated gymnast, male or female, in American history. Winner of a combined 16 World Championships and Olympic medals between 1991 and 1996, Miller was also the most successful American athlete at the 1992 Barcelona Games, winning five medals altogether.
Miller was part of the famous “Magnificent Seven” team, which won the gymnastics team gold in Atlanta in 1992, the first team since the 1950s to beat the Soviet Union in gymnastics. Miller also won gold for the beam in the 1996 Olympics, in addition to numerous gold medals in the World Championships.
Miller was on campus Monday for a Women’s Athletics Luncheon followed by “Walk for the Health of It” at the Events Center where she autographed head shots and walked around the track with students and community members.
Pipe Dream got the chance to sit down with Miller and discuss what it means to be one of the most recognizable gymnasts in the country.
Pipe Dream: First, can you tell me a little bit about what it meant to be on the first American team to win in gymnastics since the Soviet Union began winning this event every year since the 1950s?
Shannon Miller: You know it’s been incredible. Certainly with the history of gymnastics and to be a part of it is amazing. The ‘92 team that I was a part of was my first team. Winning the Bronze for us was just an amazing achievement, and to be able to follow that up four years later with gold in the team competition was certainly a highlight for all of us and something we’ll always cherish. Hopefully for us it was just reminding little girls everywhere that if you dream it, it is possible. If you’re willing to work hard and stay dedicated, you can make it happen.
PD: So what does it mean to be an Olympic gold medalist? How has that affected your life at all?
Miller: I think that being an Olympic gold medalist has affected my life in so many ways. I mean really just being an athlete has affected me in so many ways, it’s built my confidence and my self-esteem, certainly on the physical end just with the strength and the flexibility and coordination and all of that growing up as a child, but then all of the other life lessons you get out of it, like goal-setting skills how to manage your time, how to remain dedicated and how to set goals for yourself and really follow through. I think that’s the biggest thing, just following through, so just all those things that help you for the rest of your life.
PD: Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to live in the Olympic Village?
Miller: I was in the Olympic Village during my first Olympics, so I was only 15 years old. So for us, being in the Olympic Village was great because you got to see all the other athletes from all the other countries, but also so many different sports, like when you’re headed to the cafeteria to eat. But at the same time, we were very focused on workouts, you know. Training in the morning, come back, take a nap, training in the evening, so there wasn’t a lot of time for socializing and doing all that.
PD: So given that this is a college newspaper, can you tell us if there is really as much sex in the Olympic Village as people say there is?
Miller: (Laughs) Well like I said, I was 15, so I really can’t comment on any of that.
PD: Are you still close with any of the rest of the “Magnificent Seven” or anyone else in the gymnastics community?
Miller: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve all grown up, and we have kids and families, and so our conversations have changed over the years. Six of us were just together in Chicago in November, which was fun to get so many of us together at one time. We do get to see each other at different events, whether it’s a competition or a speaking event or the Olympics or whatever it is, so we still get to touch base which is nice.
PD: So are you still involved in the world of gymnastics?
Miller: I’m very involved with health and fitness outside the world of gymnastics, but I get to stay involved through broadcasting. I commentated the Olympic Games, I continue to commentate for USA Gymnastics and help promote events, so that’s the way I can kind of stay involved and get my gymnastics fix.
PD: Have you seen gymnastics change at all? What do you think of the current state of gymnastics as a sport?
Miller: I think it’s incredible, and that’s the thing about gymnastics, it’s always evolving. I mean every four years, it’s changing. I mean, take the London Olympics as compared to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. There’s different equipment: it’s no longer a vaulting horse, it’s a vaulting table, which is a completely different shape. All of the equipment has springs in it now. So the technology has changed so much, the skills that the athletes do are things that we just never imagined possible, and now, like 10-year-olds are doing these skills. It’s pretty incredible, and you wonder, where’s it going to top out? How many twists, how many flips can someone really do? They always surprise us.
PD: Do you worry that it’s going to get to be too many twists, or too many flips? Is it going to get dangerous?
Miller: I think there’s an innate danger in any sport, but what I’ve seen is the level of difficulty, as that has risen, so has the technology and the safety aspect. Now we don’t have 4-inch mats that we land on, we have 8-inch mats, so there’s softer padding. The technology has gained along with the difficulty levels, and as long as that stays in check, then the athletes are good.
PD: Can you tell me a little bit about your foundation and the work that you’re trying to do with it?
Miller: Well my company is Shannon Miller Lifestyle, and we are dedicated to helping women make health a priority, whether that’s helping them lose their last 5 pounds or combating cancer, or heart disease or diabetes, just focusing on good nutrition, all of those things, so that’s what my company does. My foundation is separate, it’s dedicated to fighting childhood obesity. Right now in Jacksonville there are about 300 kids who we support within school running clubs.
PD: What do you think about, in the most recent Olympics, the “Fab Five?” Do you relate at all to that team?
Miller: You know I think it was amazing to watch these five girls come on strong. They really were the ones to beat coming into the Olympics, and to be able to hold on, I think that’s more difficult than coming in in the underdog position, you know everyone’s coming for you. To see these girls go out and just nail every routine, and be so strong, for all of them, this was their first Olympic games, so that was tremendous. They’re extremely well-prepared athletes, and what I see in them that was similar to our team, is that they work so well together. They knew each other, they had a strong team captain, and they just kind of had their goals in place and went for it.
PD: As the most decorated American gymnast of all time, do you feel pressure on you and how you act now because of that legacy?
Miller: I think my parents, and the way I grew up, I understood from them, from the very beginning, that it doesn’t matter if you’re 10 years old, if your name’s in the paper and little girls are watching what you’re doing, then you need to take that seriously. That’s not to say that we’re not human and we’re not going to make mistakes, but I try my best to be a good role model, and someone that I would want my children to look up to.
PD: Do your children do gymnastics?
Miller: My son does, yeah. (Pointing to stomach) One is yet to be born, but my son is 3 [years old]. He’s done gymnastics since he was 15 months old, primarily because he wasn’t walking at 15 months old, so we got him into the gym and he was walking two classes later. Gymnastics at a young age, you know they can’t hold a bat or throw a ball at that age, but they can move their body and learn body awareness, flexibility, coordination and strength. Those are really the foundations for any sport he’ll want to do later.
PD: One more thing, we heard that you fainted earlier today. Is that true?
Miller: I got a little lightheaded towards the end of my speech, yeah. I’ve been battling severe morning sickness lately because of the baby, and with this cold on top of it, I just got a little dehydrated.
PD: Are you feeling better now?
Miller: I am, I am. (Laughing) They got me some orange juice and some food, so I’m a lot better.