Shannon Miller, 35, won two gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and earned two silver medals and three bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Miller, a former Edmond native, competed against the best in the world and put herself through years of rigorous training to prepare for what she thought would be the toughest physical period of her life leading up to the '96 Games.
But that period didn't occur until December 2010 when Miller revealed she'd been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
She was given a clean bill of health in September 2011 and sought to encourage children who are ill. Miller recently gave one of her medals to Loma Linda University Children's Hospital as a part of the hospital's Medals of Courage program.
I definitely learned more about priorities. I think as we go through life, sometimes, we really focus on our priorities like I did with the Olympic Games. Then I got out into real life, just balancing so many different things, sometimes, you forget what your priorities are. It was big reminder to me that health has to be at the top of the list. It kind of re-energized my passion for women's health because it hit home. It was absolutely so personal.
I'm telling women, “Hey, go get your exams, go get your screenings, take care of your health.” I had to do that, and, if I hadn't, then I might not be here. It was all of those women that went before me that kind of reminded me that it's so important, which really helped me because I almost skipped my exam when they found the tumor. For me, it was just kind of a wake-up call to care of my own health because here I have a little boy. I want to be here for him, I want to watch him grow up. I want to be along for the ride.
It affected me in a very emotional way — just the realization that I'm not invincible, that we're all human. Cancer does not discriminate. It doesn't care how many gold medals you have. When it calls your name, it calls your name. You've got to be ready to fight. I learned a lot about myself as a person and as a fighter and outside of gymnastics.
On the gymnastics floor, I was always a fighter. I was the scrappy kid that was gonna go after it no matter what anyone told me, and that was fine. But I wasn't really that way in the rest of my life. I was very shy, very kind of soft-spoken, was fine being in the background. Cancer allowed me to be a little bit more of a voice for myself, not be embarrassed by things quite as easily. Not be quite as shy. We've got this one life, so live it to the fullest.
When you lose your hair, it definitely changes you as a person. For me, I was worried about what other people thought, whether I was pleasing other people, just making sure that everyone else is happy. I kind of learned that I have to also make sure that I'm OK, too. The more I'm OK with things, the more other people will be OK with things. Particularly with my son, when I lost my hair, I was so worried that he was going to be scared of me. I had to be comfortable with how I looked in order for him to be comfortable with how I looked.
Keep fighting. I had a good friend of mine on the night before I went in for my first cancer treatment, and I did not realize he was also a survivor. He said, “Shannon, this is just like the balance beam: You fall off, and you just get back up. And you just keep getting back up every single day.” I really took that to heart and kept that with me throughout treatment particularly. Those days that it just knocked me to the floor, and I was not sure I could get out of bed, my goal that day might be just to get dressed. I remembered what he said, and I just kept telling myself you've got to get back up.
No. 1, you've got to set goals, and the Olympic Games is a great goal. But don't forget about all the other great things where gymnastics can lead — college, scholarship. Just the physical aspects — the balance, the coordination, the strength, the flexibility — that you're going to take with you no matter what sport you try or where you go in life. Don't forget about all of those goals, and make sure you set short term goals. Have something to achieve every single day that you get up because that's what's going to keep you motivated.
I think you've gotta have fun. If you're not enjoying it, and you're not truly passionate about it, you won't be successful.