A 19-year-old Shannon Miller had already distinguished herself as a world champion when she assuredly stepped on the balance beam in front of hopeful crowds at the 1996 Atlanta games. Winning the gold would make her one of the most decorated gymnasts, male or female, in history, and win the gold she did; so as we rev up for another exciting Olympic games, you may wonder where is Shannon Miller now? “Retiring at the ripe old age of 19 meant trying to figure out who I was at a young age, immediately after my entire world had changed," Miller tells Bustle. But the gymnast has certainly seemed to figure it out.
It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since a group of remarkably talented American gymnasts deemed “The Magnificent Seven” ascended to Olympic legend status as the first U.S. women’s gymnastics team to defeat the Russians and win the overall event. It took heart, grit, and determination to make Olympic history, and it is these qualities that Miller has held onto in her life off the mat.
Throughout her years as a gymnastics prodigy, Miller was known for her graceful ballet-like style, precision, and versatility (she had competed and medalled in almost every event possible). Watch clips of her performances and you will be amazed by the immense strength in her small, lithe frame and cool head (as Beyonce would say — she's "flawless"). By the time Miller was back under the Olympic spotlight in 1996, she had already won a record-breaking five medals (two silver, three bronze) at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, missing the gold by the most narrow margin in history.
After taking home two gold medals at the 1996 games, Miller began to transition out of gymnastics and commit to going back to school, officially retiring in 2001. But, as Miller tells Bustle over e-mail, the sudden change was anything but easy. "I had never known a time I wasn’t doing gymnastics," Miller says. "I loved being in the gym. It was a safe place where I felt the love and support of my coaches and friends. All of the sudden I lost that family, overnight.”
It wasn’t just the loss of a close-knit community that Miller had to adapt to as a freshman — the 40 hours of physical training a week that had dominated her life up to that point was no longer filling up her schedule. She had a full-time job's worth of hours freed up, and old habits from her days in the spotlight to break. “I had no idea what to do with all that time!" Miller says. "In addition, I moved away from home to live at college where I had already begun classes before the Olympics. So not only was I missing my gym family, but the love, care and immediate support of my actual family. All of a sudden I had to figure out who I was outside of gymnastics. And I felt like I was supposed to have that answer ready to go in a 30 second sound bite.”
Miller had no choice but to reinvent herself and restructure her life. She set about learning how to be healthy on her own. “I had never been on a treadmill or done yoga.” All college kids feel the pressure to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and Miller was no exception: “I think at 19 or 20 I felt like I was supposed to have all the answers, I was supposed to have life figured out. What I realize now is that life is about the journey… bumps and bruises included.”
Miller went on to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Houston, and a law degree from Boston College in 2007. Receiving her diploma was bookended by being inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame — twice. In 2010, amidst her motivational speaking tours, she founded two health and wellness-focussed endeavors: The Shannon Miller Foundation, and Shannon Miller Lifestyle: Health and Fitness for Women.
"I’m very proud of the work I’ve done through my foundation to fight childhood obesity. Our focus is to help children get active. We currently support over 8,000 children in the Jacksonville area where I reside," Miller tells Bustle. "And, of course, my company Shannon Miller Lifestyle is a passion for me. Our mission is to help women make their health a priority... We cover everything from fitness and nutrition to stress management and the importance of regular screenings and exams. As a cancer survivor, I’m proud to raise awareness of cancer issues before, during and after diagnosis."
Miller is also a mother of two young children — Rocco, six, and Sterling, three. In 2011, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. As a survivor she has been vocal of the experience, writing about it in her memoir published last year, It's Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life . Of all her achievements over the past 20 years, there is no question that makes her happiest: "The most fulfilling is being a mom. I have become one of those people who will talk about their kids all day long if you let me. They are just incredible people and I love being with them. So that’s an easy one."
As a seasoned pro, she will be in the stands avidly watching this year's games, and cheering on Team USA. Her words of advice? Remember what you are there to do, and do it. "Focus, focus, focus," Miller advises them. "As you near the Games, it gets crazy. Everyone wants a piece of you and your time. If you’re not careful, it can overwhelm you. There is a lot going on all around you but it’s the same four events you’ve been doing every day for years on end. And when the butterflies in your stomach threaten to derail you…..just BREATHE. You’ve got this!"
You can follow Shannon Miller on Instagram and Twitter at @shannonmiller96.
Images: Shannon Miller