by Anna Rose Johnson
Shannon Miller—the name evokes images of a graceful young gymnast, a champion veteran, a courageous survivor, an author, a businesswoman, a mother. In honor of this Olympic gold medalist’s 40th birthday today, we’re embarking on a journey of time travel to relive the pivotal moments of her celebrated career.
Her love for gymnastics began with an affinity for playing on her trampoline at the age of four, and she acquired her press to handstand only as an incentive to receive a Cabbage Patch doll. Shannon improved by leaps and bounds after that, eventually settling at Dynamo Gymnastics with Coach Steve Nunno in Oklahoma City.
The 1989 Olympic Sports Festival, held in Oklahoma City, marked the first major competition of Miller’s gymnastics career. She placed third and qualified to the U.S. junior national team, clinching the uneven bars title as well. After Shannon’s victory on bars, the media took notice and emphasized the fact that she had kept the Karolyi gymnasts from sweeping the gold medals at the Festival. “Suddenly all of Oklahoma knew who Shannon Miller was,” Shannon’s mother Claudia recalled in her 1999 book, Shannon Miller: My Child, My Hero. “Oklahomans were beginning to think she might be someone to watch—maybe even a future Olympian.”
Shannon continued to attract attention at the 1991 World Championships in Indianapolis, where she qualified to every event final (a first for the U.S. women) and won silver medals in the team final and on uneven bars in a tie with Tatiana Gutsu. In her 2015 memoir It’s Not About Perfect, Shannon noted, “It was a tremendous competition and a critical stepping-stone for me and the U.S. team leading into the Olympic Games the following year.”
Shannon’s journey to Barcelona was not without its struggles and setbacks. On March 31, 1992, she dislocated her elbow, severely limiting her training in the lead-up to the Olympics. Nevertheless, she battled back and secured a place on the team.
Tatiana Gutsu of the Ukraine would become Shannon’s main opponent at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, despite attempts by the media and gymnastics community to make the Games a rivalry between Shannon and reigning World Champion Kim Zmeskal. “Shannon Miller is a dancer. Kim Zmeskal is a power tumbler,” The Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed ahead of the competition, citing the two athletes’ unique styles as intriguing components for a potential matchup. In fact, Kim’s coach Bela Karolyi told USA Today in July 1992 that there was definitely a “rivalry” between the two, and Shannon’s coach Steve Nunno agreed. “We were competing for perfection, not against each other,” Shannon said later. “As Kim and I saw each other in more competitions in 1991 and early 1992, our friendship grew and we’d joke, ‘How’s it going, rival?’ Our relationship was one of mutual respect when we were young and that never changed.” Suffering from a stress fracture during the Barcelona Games, Kim ended up finishing 10th in the all-around, while Shannon placed a close second (only 0.012) behind Tatiana.
While Shannon’s past success had been largely limited to team medals, 1993 was the year she came into her own as an all-arounder. Her first Worlds since Indianapolis would be the 1993 World Championships in Birmingham—a city that would soon be forever associated with Shannon in the gymnastics community. The all-around quickly shaped up to be a battle between Shannon, her teammate Dominique Dawes, and two Romanian Olympians (Lavinia Milosovici and Gina Gogean). In the end, Shannon triumphed by a mere 0.007, finishing the competition with a perfect score for her full-twisting yurchenko (then with a maximum start value of 9.80). “I knew I had done my job and wherever I finished I would be happy,” Shannon commented to International Gymnast shortly after the victory.
A temporary burnout and a back injury after ’93 Worlds caused Shannon to question her future in the sport and her drive to compete, but before long she returned to gymnastics with newfound outlook and a brand-new goal: to compete at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The 1994 World Championships in Brisbane, Australia marked the halfway point in the quadrennium, and it was at this meet that Shannon became the first American two-time World all-around champ. Again, Lavinia Milosovici was one of Shannon’s closest competitors, and again, Shannon finished the competition with a brilliant vault to clinch the all-around gold. Her other coach, Peggy Liddick, told The Los Angeles Times that the pressure of repeating her success in 1993 was not a major factor. “What we teach Shannon is that pressure is only how you perceive it,” she explained. “We tell her she’s prepared and she knows she’s prepared.”
Shannon’s mental toughness became even more important as the 1995 World Championships in Sabae, Japan arrived. In a workout session prior to qualifications, she injured her foot, which signified the fourth injury to impair the U.S. team (Dominique Dawes, Amanda Borden, and Amy Chow had withdrawn from Worlds already). Determined to stay in the competition and help her team, Shannon delivered clutch performances in the final to enable the USA to win bronze. However, her injury prevented her from taking home any individual medals or competing in the vault and floor finals. “I was elated that my second vault allowed our team to sneak into third place for a bronze medal, but after snaring five individual gold medals at the previous two Worlds, I was shut out,” Shannon recalled later. “It wasn’t the way I would have liked my World Championship experience to go, especially with the media seeing it as further proof that my championship days were over, but my focus had to be forward. It was the next year that mattered most.”
The journey to Atlanta was, to say the least, difficult for Shannon. A catastrophic wrist injury threatened to derail her Olympic chances altogether. In the lead-up to the Olympic qualifying meets, a doctor informed Shannon that her weak wrist could be a precursor to a horrific injury if she continued to compete. “Dr. Hieke strongly recommended that Shannon end her gymnastics career,” Claudia Miller remembered. But Shannon accepted the news calmly and relied on her faith to push through this setback, just as she had persevered through her elbow injury in 1992.
The ending of this story is a famous piece of gymnastics history. Shannon successfully petitioned to the 1996 Olympic team and attained legendary status as a member of the “Magnificent Seven” after the U.S. women’s team captured gold in Atlanta. But the most famous routine in her long career remains her near-perfect balance beam routine in the Olympic apparatus finals. An elegant, poised, flowing performance garnered a score of 9.862 and gymnastics immortality. Fittingly, Shannon Miller concluded her memoir with an allusion to that night in Atlanta: “What I have learned in gymnastics, my career, and my personal life is that while it may be admirable to shoot for perfection, it’s not about perfect. It is about going out and giving it your best every single day. It’s about getting back up after a fall with the understanding that a 9.862 can still win you the gold, in the Olympics and in life.”
It’s Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life (Shannon Miller with Danny Peary, St. Martin’s Press 2015)
Shannon Miller: America’s Most Decorated Gymnast (Krista Quiner, The Bradford Book Company 1997)
Shannon Miller: My Child, My Hero (Claudia Miller with Gayle White, University of Oklahoma Press 1999)
Anna Rose Johnson writes about women’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. She loves Whippets, brownies, and full-twisting double layouts. Her writing portfolio can be viewed at: https://annarosejohnson.contently.com