Seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller looked back on her gymnastics career in “It’s Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life,” her recently released book.
In a provided excerpt, Miller goes back to her final Olympic competition, the Atlanta balance beam final on July 29, 1996.
Though Miller helped lead the U.S. team to gold in Atlanta, she was disappointed to finish eighth in both the all-around and vault finals, competing with an injured wrist.
In front of 40,000 people in the Georgia Dome, Miller was so cognizant in her final event as she performed on beam that she heard papers shuffling, nervous coughs and a gentleman on the left side of the arena yell, “Hey, buddy, shut your flash off!” to a photographer.
She hit her routine for a 9.862, taking the lead with four women still to perform, a score she couldn’t remember when a stranger quizzed her at an airport shortly after the Olympics. No other gymnast could beat her score, including the Olympic all-around champion Lilia Podkopayeva of Ukraine who followed Miller in the start order.
Miller’s final Olympic routine earned the first individual Olympic gold medal of her career and seventh total Olympic medal. She’s the most decorated U.S. Olympic gymnast of all time.
Here were her thoughts after receiving her gold medal, from “It’s Not About Perfect:”
As I stood on the podium, watching the American flag being raised, I thought about the people who had helped get me there, my team. You don’t land a gold medal alone; success is always a team effort. I thought of my parents, whose support of me never wavered. I thought of my coaches Steve and Peggy, who had stuck with me and were so patient with me—a young, determined, often frustrated control freak—for all of those years. Steve was often the one in the limelight but Peggy was also crucial to my success as a gymnast and in life. I also thought about how I had not retired after the 1992 Olympics and continued gymnastics simply because I loved the sport and the part it played in my life. I thought of how I trained up to eight hours a day with the thought of competing in an Olympics in my own country. I thought of how the hand specialist advised that I quit gymnastics rather than try for another Olympics. I thought about my painful wrist, which wouldn’t improve for years.
I also thought of how skeptical people were about my chances in Atlanta because I had grown six inches, gained thirty pounds, and aged four years. My mind was flooded with all the bad falls and disappointments and doubt. I thought of how important it was that I continued to get back up after each and every fall, and to move forward after every setback.
What was the story of that girl on the podium? Maybe it was that you cannot succeed if you don’t dare to try. That you must keep trying even after you fall on your backside. And that you should never let others decide how much you can achieve. Dream big, work hard, and don’t set limits on what you could do or be.
I had success because I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to. It didn’t matter that I was a girl or that I was small or that I was reserved. It didn’t matter that my parents didn’t have infinite resources. It wasn’t about perfect; it was about making the full effort. It was about setting goals and steadfastly refusing to be derailed. Keep passion alive. Many people don’t realize how strong they truly are until they are challenged. My sport did that for me. Gymnastics allowed me to see what I was made of. And when I had doubts or faced obstacles, it always reminded me.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Miller competed in the floor exercise final at the Atlanta Olympics.