Olympic great Shannon Miller on surviving cancer and why 'you'll learn so much more from failure than perfection'

·7 min read
Retired gymnast Shannon Miller on mental health, surviving ovarian cancer and her Olympic memories. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Retired gymnast Shannon Miller on mental health, surviving ovarian cancer and her Olympic memories. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Seven-time Olympic medalist and Magnificent Seven gymnastics team member Shannon Miller has a lot to be grateful for, but it’s not all due to the medals or records she set starting at age 15, when she first competed in Barcelona. Miller, now in her 40s, just hit 10 years as an ovarian cancer survivor — no small feat — and while she’s really looking forward to the upcoming Summer Olympics, her perspective is greater than the games.

For Miller, who went on to finish her undergraduate at University of Houston and later got a law degree from Boston College, the Olympics gave her a platform, one she intends to use for the greater good. In 2017, Miller became involved with GSK's Our Way Forward, a program that serves as a call to action for ovarian cancer patients and their families and provides a platform to share and hear stories from other ovarian cancer patients — something that Miller, a mother of two, wishes she had access to throughout her diagnosis and treatment.

The Olympics fan and commentator recently spoke with Yahoo Life about meeting the Dream Team in ’92, the importance of checking in with her mental health and why she no longer sweats the small stuff.

What’s your day-to-day approach to mental health?

My mental health has to do with also my physical and emotional health. When I’m getting physical activity, getting sleep, rest and recuperation, being focused on family and gratitude... all of those things combine for my mental health. I try to focus each day on checking in with myself. We get so wrapped up in our to-do lists and the things we have to accomplish each day, we forget to check in and ask ourselves: How are you doing today? What are the areas where you can use some help? How do we make that possible? Check in with yourself.

Miller competed at the '92 and '96 Olympics. (Photo: Aubrey Washington/EMPICS via Getty Images)
Miller competed at the '92 and '96 Olympics. (Photo: Aubrey Washington/EMPICS via Getty Images)

What’s the message you want to share as far as cancer survivorship?

I want to be sure women are aware of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer, but also the support that’s available to them. I wish that I had had a program like Our Way Forward when I was diagnosed. We focus a lot on the medical, but there are emotional and psychological issues that patients go through. When the medical portion ends, that’s when people truly feel alone, and not just patients but also caregivers and family members. I also want to let people know it’s not selfish to make health a priority. We get busy and we don't want to be selfish but it’s not — and early detection really can save your life.

Do you have any small self-care rituals that make your day better?

My go-to [rituals] are sleeping a little extra [laughs] and physical activity. I can tell when I feel overwhelmed, I just need sleep. I’m an advocate for 10-minute workouts — taking a walk, getting fresh air. It’s so important to take those moments where you feel overwhelmed or unproductive, to get out of that feeling. I’ll do 10 minutes of physical activity; it’s quick, it energizes you, it shakes things up, my mind works a little better. Those things are important to me: I’m an introvert and I gain energy from being alone and having time to regroup. Understanding how you gain energy is important. When you find out what works for you, stick with it.

Aside from physical activity, what else brings you joy?

My joy is my children. Being able to watch them grow and try to look at the world through their eyes is so much fun (and sometimes silly). But it does bring me joy to see them learn something new or figure out a problem. Finding my joy each day is also about gratitude: stopping to think about things to be grateful for. During my cancer battle, I clung to gratitude. There were days [that were about] simply waking up in the morning, simply having another day to be here. For me, gratitude has a lot to do with finding my joy.

Many people take for granted what a gift life is. I take it you no longer sweat the small stuff?

When you go through something traumatic and difficult, maybe the blessing in it is finding out there’s a lot of things you can let go of.

What stresses you out?

Disorganization and change can stress me out, but I work very hard to keep grounded and not get too stressed about stuff. Sometimes stress is motivation, but I’m not big on surprises [laughs]. I’ve become a lot harder to stress out the older I get; you go through too many life experiences and health-wise, it’s good to keep it at bay.

I wouldn't say that I've completely mellowed, but I am a lot harder to stress out these days. I really just let things go. [But] when I was an athlete, I wanted everything to be perfect. Trying to reach perfection: the perfect step landing, the perfect routine, the perfect 10... I strived for that every day. Through the cancer process — and motherhood and life — you realize there is no “perfect,” and nobody needs to be perfect.

What’s your mantra for life?

“It's not about perfect” is one. I have several mantras for different points in life but for me, that’s it. My drive is still there. I still want to do a good job and be successful, but in the back of my mind, I remind myself, you’re not going to be perfect, so don't worry so much about it. Do your best. All you can do is go out and give it 100 percent — no matter how big or small the task — and after that, stop worrying about it. If you do the work, you can be proud of the outcome even when it doesn’t quite go your way.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

One lesson I learned early in my career was, it’s not about getting something right the first time — it’s about getting there: the mistakes, the journey. Make the mistakes, fail! You’ll learn so much more from failure than perfection. It translates to every aspect of our lives. If you don't know how to get back up, it can be a difficult road.

We tend to only see the end result and not the work it took to get there, right?

Absolutely. I stress that the gold medal is actually not won on the day of competition — it’s won with the hard work and preparation, years before athletes ever stepped on the floor. People forget it’s the thousands of falls that got us to that point.

What’re you looking forward to seeing at the upcoming games?

EVERYTHING! I love the Olympics! I competed in the ‘92 and ‘96 games and before that, I’d never sat down and watched them. Moving to the broadcast side, in 2000 and onward, I had the opportunity to talk to athletes from other sports around the world. What I love most are the stories that come out of the Olympics: stories of people chasing their goals and working hard to achieve something. I love them.

What's your favorite Olympic memory?

In 1992, it was my first Olympics, I was 15 years old, a little homesick — it was a time before the internet and social media — and you’re just there with your coaches. I remember getting into the [Barcelona] Olympic Village and the first people we saw were the Dream Team. They were super-nice… the tallest with the shortest! I grew up watching these guys with my dad, and as a [homesick] 15-year-old [who] hadn't seen anyone from the U.S. in weeks, they felt like family [laughs]. Fellow Americans! It was fun getting to see them and not feel so alone at the Olympics. Getting the opportunity to represent my country… the experience is absolutely surreal.

And then in 1996, walking into the Georgia Dome, in your home country, seeing the sea of red, white and blue, hearing the chants of "USA" — all the support you feel the entire competition, [the American fans] lifted us up. It really does make a difference as an athlete.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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