Before Michael Phelps, there was Shannon Miller.
A star Olympian in the ’90s, Miller remains the most decorated American gymnast, holding 108 medals—more than half of which are gold—from international and national competitions.
During the 1996 Summer Olympics, Miller became the first American gymnast to win a gold medal on the balance beam. Her performance helped the United States earn its first team gold in the sport, along with the team nickname “the Magnificent Seven.” Miller was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame twice, the only female athlete to do so.
Yet perhaps her biggest victory occurred in a hospital room, more than a decade after she retired from gymnastics.
In January 2011, Miller was diagnosed with a form of ovarian cancer when doctors discovered a rare, baseball-sized malignant germ cell. She had surgery to remove the tumor, then underwent nine weeks of chemotherapy, publicly blogging about her treatment along the way.
Today, Miller is cancer-free—and wants other women to be as well. An advocate for early detection, she is president of Shannon Miller Lifestyle: Health and Fitness for Women, an online resource for healthy living. She has produced series of fitness books, cookbooks and fitness DVDs and launched the Shannon Miller Foundation, which aims to fight childhood obesity.
On March 12, Miller will be the keynote speaker at the YMCA of South Palm Beach County’s 11th Annual Prayer Breakfast, held at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. She opened up to PBI about her journey with cancer, a story she will share at the event.
What will you talk about in your speech at the Prayer Breakfast?
I will talk about the importance of raising a healthy family and how taking advantage of your local YMCA can help you and your families grow in youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. The YMCA of South Palm Beach County has some amazing programs for children, adults and seniors. I will also touch on the issue of childhood obesity, how our children can be role models for us and how we can work to create a positive example for them.
Being a decorated Olympian takes a lot of hard work and a determined attitude. Was there anything you learned from your years of competing as a gymnast that helped you during your battle with cancer?
I fell back on the lessons that I had learned during training. I focused on goal-setting. I set my goal of getting through chemo and then set small goals for each day so that I had something to achieve each day. It may have been something as simple as drinking enough water or taking a 10-minute walk, but it empowered me to keep going. I tried to keep a positive outlook and attitude. I also knew that this was going to be a team effort. I had to work with my doctors nurses and family so that we were all on the same page, moving forward.
Was there anything surprising you learned about yourself during your recovery?
I learned that I’m a stronger person than I thought. I grew up very shy, never wanting to disappoint anyone. I was always very confident in gymnastics, but outside of the sport I had fairly low self-esteem. After losing my hair and facing my own mortality, there isn’t much left to be embarrassed about. I feel like a stronger, more empowered woman after cancer. I also feel like my priorities are much easier to identify.
What was your biggest challenge during your personal journey with cancer?
My biggest challenge was the lack of control. I would do anything I needed to do to make sure I could be here for my son. Unfortunately, it’s not always that clear-cut. So the challenge was trusting that my doctor was going to make sure that I was doing everything I could to get and remain healthy.
Your son wasn’t even 2 when you were diagnosed. What advice do you have for mothers—especially those of young children—who have cancer?
I am constantly amazed at how resilient children are. My son was very young. As a new mom, I was afraid of him being scared of bald mommy. It broke my heart to think about it. When he saw me without my hat one day, he barely flinched. It was just another look for Mom. However, I do think children that are older need to be able to discuss the issue. It’s important that they get their questions answers. Sometimes children will fill in the blanks on their own, which can be much scarier than what is actually happening. So it is important to talk with your health care team about how a cancer diagnosis can affect your children.
What’s the best advice you were ever given?
The best advice I was given during cancer was from a friend of mine who said, “Shannon, this is just like the balance beam. You’re going to fall off. You just have to get back up and keep moving forward. You’ll probably fall off again. Each time, you just keep getting back up.”
What's your most recent favorite memory?
[My son] Rocco just got a new stamp pad he was very excited about. He spent 10 minutes putting stamps of butterflies and ladybugs all over the both of us. He’s just a sweet little boy.
What would you do if you were invisible for a day?
I would skip the lines at the best museums.