Shannon Miller (Part 1)

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.

You are the most decorated U.S. gymnast. How has the Bible helped you in your gymnastics career?
The Bible has helped me in so many different ways, and not just with gymnastics. One of the things I battled with, especially as a young gymnast, was loneliness. All of a sudden at the age of 11, off I'd go to foreign countries for days and sometimes weeks at a time. My parents couldn't travel with me all the time, and sometimes my personal coach wasn't even allowed to be there to train me. So I'd be in a foreign country - alone, training hard for eight hours a day. I would come back to the hotel room sore and tired, and I didn't have Mom and Dad to console me. Sometimes, it was too expensive to call home. When I was in Japan, I'd call home only once or twice during a two-week period because I didn't want to waste money. So I would look to the Bible and turn to God to understand that I was never alone, that God was always there with me taking care of me.

Were there particular passages you used?
What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee. Ps. 56:3

That was a wonderful passage that I used quite often. My mom used to write down little note cards and put sayings from the Bible on them. So when I felt really stressed, nervous, or homesick, I would read through each card and take to heart each passage. Each day as I worked out, I would keep one of the sayings in the forefront of my mind. And even if I was in the middle of a huge arena, I could turn to that comforting thought right away. And that helped a lot.

What other challenges did you have to face?
Obviously injuries. I've had my fair share. But I was able to turn to God during those times. I remember in 1992, I was doing my last bar routine of the night, and I fell wrong on my dismount and dislocated and broke my elbow. This was about three months before the 1992 Olympic Games. All sorts of things were going through my head: "What if I can't compete? What if it doesn't heal quickly enough?" I needed to replace those thoughts with good thoughts and the Bible passages that I had been learning over the years. I was afraid. And I had to realize that fear is just "False Evidence Appearing Real." I knew that I could never be in danger because God would not let that happen. I was never outside of His reach. There really isn't a place where I could go that He wouldn't be there to take care of me.

So what happened?
I ended up in surgery that night. The doctor came in and said that he would either put a cast on me for six weeks, which was way too long because it would take me out of contention for the Olympics, or he could put a screw in my elbow that would attach the broken piece of bone to the elbow. There was a lot of pressure for me to have the surgery. It was a tough decision. I was used to relying on God for healing as I am a Christian Scientist. I talked with my mom and a Christian Science practitioner who assured me that God was protecting me whether I decided to have the surgery or not. I ended up healing much faster than expected. In fact my surgeon told my parents, "I didn't do this; God did." Two months after the surgery, I won Olympic trials and a spot on the 1992 Olympic Team. During this trying time one of the Bible verses that really helped me was:

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. (Isa. 40:31)

During that time, you must have been going through a lot of different emotions. What steadied you?
In an all-encompassing answer -- my faith. Certainly the support of my family and coaches also helped steady me. My faith in God has given me a sense of calm and reassurance when I have needed it most. Having something to believe in and understanding why I believe it, understanding that I don't have to take on all the stress, fear, and nerves alone has given me the strength and confidence to move forward. I believe that God will never put me in a position that I can't handle. That doesn't mean everything is going to come easy. But it does mean that I can trust in Him to help me through any situation I face. And it's really God who is handling everything.

One of my favorite things to read is the poem "Footprints" because it reminds me that it's not me doing something; it's God. And that has gotten me through a lot of difficult situations. I really liked the verse:

God is my strength and power: and he maketh my way perfect. (II Sam. 22:33)

It was particularly helpful on the floor exercise. I would always be so winded by the end of my floor routine, and my legs would feel like jelly before my last pass, but I would remember that saying, and I would be able to land on my feet.

How did you have the strength to get through disappointments?
The only way I get over disappointment is to remember that in life even mistakes are learning experiences. My coach taught me that it was okay to make mistakes as long as I was able to learn something from that mistake, move on, and not dwell on the negative. I have made it a habit to turn challenges into positive experiences. I may have fallen three times in World Championship during beam finals, but I guarantee you that when I went home, I worked harder than ever on those skills because I was not going to make those mistakes again, and I didn't. When I went into the Olympics, I was able to hit my beam routine.

Certainly there have been other disappointments in my life. There have been times when I didn't get a certain job that I really wanted, or I didn't do well on an exam that I studied really hard for. Of course there are things in life we all struggle to understand. And sometimes we try to do things ourselves. But really I don't think we can do it as well as God can. Sometimes I need to hand over the reigns to Him and remember that He's here to help me. I just need to let Him.

In 2000, while training for Olympic Trials, I fractured my knee landing wrong on a difficult vault. I did everything I could to get past this injury and back to training. Between rehab, strength training and any regular gymnastics training I could do, I was working out up to eleven hours some days. I was going to be ready! When Olympic Trials came, I was about two weeks from being truly ready, but I pushed hard to fight through the competition. And after the first day of competition I felt I had a good shot at making my 3rd Olympic team. However, on the first event of the second day of competition, I hyper-extended my already weak knee when landing my vault and wasn't able to finish the competition. As I sat and watched all of the other athletes finish the competition, I was feeling really sorry for myself. I had worked so hard, and now I would never know if I could have made that team.

The day after I returned home, still depressed, I received a call from my agent. She told me that MSNBC would like me to be an analyst on "The News with Brian Williams" during the Olympics. Maybe I wouldn't be competing at another Olympic Games but this opportunity helped give me the confidence to pursue another area of sports. It gave me the ability to try something I had never even thought about before. I found I really enjoyed it. I look back and realize that it was so much better for me to do what God wanted me to do rather than what I felt I needed to do. God's will is always good.

Your teenage life was much different from most teens. What were some of the successes and challenges you had as a teen?
In a lot of ways my challenges were the same as other teens, but there were also some differences. Most teens don't have to deal with media in the way that I did. By the time I was 11 years old, not only did I have to tumble on a four-inch wide piece of wood in front of a camera, I also had to be interviewed by reporters on a pretty consistent basis. And when I failed, I had a camera right there in my face to catch the tears. Millions of people watched my successes, but just as many saw my failures.

Some things were the same: I was trying to do well in school and trying to fit in. However, it was pretty difficult for me to feel included at my high school. Here I was in high school, a skinny little girl who stood 4'10" if I was standing up really straight. I didn't look like any of the other girls. It seemed like they all had the coolest clothes and lots of friends. I was not in the popular crowd and really didn't fit into any of the cliques in school. I went to school for school work, but didn't go to football games or dances. I was really only interested in doing gymnastics. For me homework came first and then gymnastics.

How did you deal with these feelings of being left out or not belonging? Was there anything in particular that helped you?
I guess I felt so different from everyone else at school because of my shyness and my height and overall size. I didn't even hit puberty until my senior year. That can be a really tough thing to deal with. We all want to feel like we have a place where we belong and can be ourselves. So I went through a period where I wanted desperately to fit in with the popular kids. But after a while, I realized that it didn't really matter. Everyone feels inadequate at some point, even if he or she doesn't show it. I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and look at the good things that were going on in my life. I remembered that we are all created in God's "image" and "likeness" (Genesis 1:26). So as God's reflection I had to be okay.

While it was a challenge for me to fit in, at the same time I had the opportunity to travel all over the world competing in a sport that I love. So in the end, I figured it wasn't all that bad that I didn't fit into a certain group at school. I was getting pretty good grades, and I had some really good friends at the gym. When I was doing gymnastics, I was in control. I didn't have to try to be something I wasn't. I just had to try to be the best me I could be. No one cared what color leotard I was wearing. And being short was actually a good thing! Gymnastics gave me confidence in myself. It taught me that everyone has something she or he is good at. Sometimes it takes a little work and a little time to find it, but its there. I may have been different, but sometimes different is good!