Shannon Miller Falconetti
Hometown: Edmond, Oklahoma
Profession: Retired gymnast; Author
College: University of Houston; Boston College Law School
Favorite Female Athlete: She’ll never tell
For today’s Women’s History profile, we feature a Q&A with Olympic gold medal gymnast Shannon Miller. The seven-time Olympic medalist offers her thoughts on the Final Five of the 2016 Rio Games, the emphasis on body image in gymnastics, and her advice to other girls and women.
- Describe how you first got into gymnastics.
I started gymnastics at age five. My sister and I got a trampoline for Christmas one year and our parents got so nervous with us trying to attempt flips on our own that they signed us up for classes at a local gym. I fell in love from the first day!
- When was the first time you realized being an Olympian was an attainable goal?
I really didn’t think about the Olympics much until I began competing internationally. Early on it was simply about learning a new skill and trying to make it to the state competition. Then after that it was, “Can I make it to regionals?”. I was always looking at the next step. However, when I made the national team and began representing the United States, it was as if everything rose to a new level. The first time I won an international competition and got to stand on the podium and hear the sound of our national anthem while watching the American flag being raised, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to do it on the biggest stage possible. For a gymnast, that is the Olympic games.
- You have met lots of success as an athlete. What has been one of the more difficult challenges you faced as a gymnast? How did you overcome that?
I think injuries are often the most challenging. It’s not just the physical issue you suffer, but it’s the emotional and psychological challenge that often becomes more difficult. Athletes don’t like to sit on the sidelines. We want to get back out there and go. So there is that balance you learn, of taking care of yourself while continuing to push forward wherever possible. You worry about getting back in shape in time for a big competition. Once you’re back, you battle the thought that maybe that knee or elbow isn’t as strong as it once was. It takes time and, unfortunately, experience to deal with injuries in a positive way that helps you come out of it a stronger person and athlete.
One of my most difficult injuries was a broken and dislocated elbow about 10 weeks before the 1992 Olympic Trials. It was easy to slip into the feeling and mentality that all was lost. My coach really helped me put it in perspective with two simple sentences … “Don’t feel sorry for yourself; there’s no time for that.” He also showed that he was going to be with me every step of the way. He didn’t sugar coat it, but he remained positive despite such a tremendous set back. And in the gym each day, he found ways to remind me that this was an opportunity, not a detriment. I could now spend time working on my weaknesses; things like flexibility and strength. I wasn’t going to risk over training since I couldn’t do all the routines. It’s important to look at what you can do versus what you cannot.
- The Final Five made a huge splash in Rio last summer. What have been your impressions of the team that represented the US in Rio?
The Final Five were simply amazing. What I’ve written and talked about that struck me the most was not how great their gymnastics was. We all knew that this team was going to win by a huge margin. They had the difficulty, the consistency, and the attitude for success. What I loved was that while they understood they were going to win, they kept the attitude of an underdog.
Every country competing knew they were playing for second, and frankly, they seemed okay with that. Primarily this is because as athletes we appreciate good gymnastics. So, yes, this U.S. team could have gone in, watered down their routines and opted for a safe easy road to gold. And no one would have begrudged them that, but they didn’t do it. They went all out. They competed their most difficult skills and routines, putting together spectacular performances day after day. Not once did you see any hesitation or feeling that they were pulling punches. It was an incredible display of sportsmanship and athleticism for all the world to see. I was proud to cheer (and scream and jump up and down) for them each step of the way.
From your perspective, in what ways has the sport changed since your competition days?
There are almost too many to count. The sport has changed so much since 1996, from the equipment to the scoring system and just about everything in between. Gymnasts now compete on a vaulting table, versus more of the skinny pommel horse piece. There are more springs in everything. The scoring system has had a complete overhaul that still has some fans stymied. Gone is the 10.0 system which made way for an open scoring system. Among other changes, I think one that stood out during the Rio Olympics was how the rules stress and reward enormous difficulty. We saw many powerful and high flying skills, but a point of contention in the sport right now is the lack of artistry. I think in the next few cycles we’ll find a balance. Another major change is the centralized system we now have with training camps in the US each month and the ability for these athletes and their personal coaches to get to know each other and learn from each other through the year.
- Gymnasts are often glorified or vilified due to body image and age. What was your experience dealing with some of these challenges in your sport?
I was never really concerned with my body while competing in gymnastics. While in sports, you start to understand all of the amazing things that your body can do. And those things that make you different are also those things that can make you stand out in a positive way. If I’m short, I can flip easier and can get to my feet faster. It was nice to be surrounded by others that shared some of those attributes but also around those that made you think about differences in a positive way.
As my body changed from age 15 to 19 in between the Olympics, I began to feel the difference in a way I hadn’t had to deal with before. I grew 5 inches and gained 20 pounds. My body couldn’t handle as much pounding and I had to learn a new way to distribute my weight. It isn’t fun. You have to learn some skills over from scratch and your timing is off for a while. However, I was fortunate to have a coach who remained very positive. I recall him saying to me on one particularly frustrating day, “Shannon, you could barely compress the springs on the spring board two years ago. Now you can gain more power off the board and learn bigger vaults. This is a good thing!”
It wasn’t until after I retired, went through more body changes, and the internet was going strong, that I began to think about body image in a negative way. I didn’t feel like I looked like a gold medalist anymore when I showed up to events or autograph signings. I felt I was letting people down because I was no longer in the best shape of my life. It took me several years to begin figuring out who I was without gymnastics.
I think that time in my life is a big reason that I started my company devoted to women’s health. I can recall the moment I realized that it wasn’t about a number on the scale. Rather it was about feeling healthy! I was stuck in a rut, feeling tired all the time. I knew I needed a change. I started balancing out my diet and exercise, and I began feeling better and gaining confidence. It took me several years, but I finally realized life is not about perfection, it’s about doing the very best with what you’ve got. We are all special and we can all do amazing things.
- Who is your favorite female athlete of all time, any sport? Describe why.
I am absolutely not answering this one, lol! I have been fortunate to have so many amazing female athlete role models and to name just one would do the others a disservice. But I will say that it’s important, critical even, to have strong female role models in our life. We need those who break barriers and show us that anything is possible with hard work and dedication. As a mother, I want my daughter to grow up learning about these amazing women.
- What advice would you offer to a young girl struggling to find success in sport or in life?
I received so much great advice and learned so many amazing life lessons through sport. I think the advice I’d give would be:
1) Set goals for yourself. Long term and short term. You have to have that dream but also understand what you need to do each day in order to make it a reality.
2) Never let others set limits on what you can achieve. And do not set limits on yourself. Sometimes we can be our own worst critic.
3) Mistakes are not always a bad thing. Mistakes allow you to learn what works and what doesn’t. They show the importance of getting back up and trying again. So don’t ever let the fear of making a mistake hold you back.
Follow Shannon on Social Media:
Personal Website: ShannonMiller.com
Facebook: Official Shannon Miller