It's Not about Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life

It's Not about Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life

by Shannon Miller, Danny Peary


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"When the odds were against me, I was always at my best."

When she retired at age 19, Shannon Miller did so as one of the most recognizable gymnasts in the country. The winner of seven Olympic medals and the most decorated gymnast, male or female, in U.S. history, Shannon tells a story of surviving and thriving. A shy, rambunctious girl raised in Oklahoma, Shannon fell in love with gymnastics at a young age and fought her way to the top.

In 1992 she won five Olympic medals after breaking her elbow in a training accident just months prior to the Games. Then, in 1996, a doctor advised her to retire immediately or face dire consequences if she chose to compete on her injured wrist. Undeterred, Shannon endured the pain and led her team, the "Magnificent Seven," to the first Olympic team gold medal for the United States in gymnastics. She followed up as the first American to win gold on the balance beam.

Equally intense, heroic and gratifying is the story of her brutal but successful battle with ovarian cancer, a disease from which fewer than fifty percent survive. Relying on her faith and hard-learned perseverance, Shannon battled through surgery and major chemotherapy to emerge on the other side with a miracle baby girl.

Her story of trial, triumph and life after cancer reminds us all that its life's bumps and bruises that reveal our character. From early on in her career, Shannon knew that life wasn't about perfection. In this incredible and inspirational tale, Shannon speaks out so as to be seen and heard by thousands as a beacon of hope.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250049865
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/21/2015
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 505,976
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Shannon Miller remains the most decorated gymnast in American history. She received her law degree from Boston College. Shannon is the founder and president of Shannon Miller Lifestyle, a company dedicated to empowering women to make their health a priority. Shannon lives in Florida with her husband, son Rocco and newest addition, their miracle baby girl Sterling.

Danny Peary is an American film critic and sports writer. He has written and edited twenty-two books. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

It's Not About Perfect

Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life

By Shannon Miller, Danny Peary

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Shannon Miller with Danny Peary
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5084-2


I have traveled constantly since I began my gymnastics career in the mid-1980s, and in America and abroad, in big cities and remote places, I run into people from Oklahoma. "Hey, Okie!" they'll call. We'll talk like old friends, although we've never met before. That's just the way it is when you're from the heartland. That wonderful sense of community between everyone from the Sooner State makes me feel at home wherever I go. I am so proud to hail from Oklahoma and am so grateful for the love of its people and, of course, the unavoidable reminder of my Olympic medal count that I experience every time I drive into my hometown of Edmond. I think of that large sign that honors my accomplishments as a tribute to the community where I grew up, a community that supported me every step of the way, win or lose. Having grown up in Edmond, trained mostly in Oklahoma City, and attended college in Norman, I am grateful to be forever identified as an Oklahoman. Indeed, it surprises people to learn that I was born in Missouri.

Both my parents are actually from Texas. My father, Ron, had family in Indiana and lived there when he was nine, and my mother, Claudia, had a grandmother in Tampico, Mexico, but they both grew up in San Antonio and met there while attending Trinity University. Ron Miller, cerebral and analytical, received a bachelor of science in physics, and was accepted into graduate school at the University of Missouri at Rolla. Claudia Murff, with a body that was always in action and a mind as sharp as a razor and always going a mile a minute, got a BA in political science and received a full scholarship to law school at Washington University in St. Louis. She was third in her class in her only year there, but withdrew so she could follow her heart to Rolla and marry my father on June 19, 1971. There were no law schools in the area and the newlyweds needed money while my father attended school, so my mother took a job as an assistant manager at the university bookstore.

While my father worked on his PhD in atmospheric physics, my parents rented a house in Rolla. That's where they were living when my sister, Tessa, was born in 1975 and I was born on March 10, 1977. My parents claim they named me Shannon simply because they really liked that name, but I suspect they might have been expecting a boy, because it was a boy's name back then. Its Irish roots can be traced to my grandmother, whose maiden name was Shockey. My middle name, Lee, came from my father's mother, Mabel Lee Miller. His side of the family was primarily Swiss-German.

I weighed only five pounds, six ounces, but my pediatrician assured my parents that I was perfectly healthy and that "great things come in small packages." She did point out that my legs turned in a little and that this might lead to problems. At first she advised my parents to try therapy each day at home, but after a month she determined that something else needed to be done. It was a concern for my parents as they prepared to move out of the state.

My father completed his doctorate in the spring of 1977, building a cloud chamber as his thesis project, and accepted a position as a professor in the physics department at Central State University, about 375 miles away in Edmond, Oklahoma. (The college would be renamed the University of Central Oklahoma and my father's department became engineering physics.) So the family packed up and moved to Oklahoma when I was about five months old.

My parents purchased a five-year-old, two-story house with a big backyard about two miles from town. It is where they raised three kids and where they now entertain their grandkids. At the time, before scores of new houses were built and it transformed into a nice but heavily populated suburban neighborhood, we lived in "ranchin' country," with wheat fields and pastures, stables and horse trails. We often heard cows mooing in the morning. We literally lived on Easy Street, in a setting as relaxing as that name. There were wide open spaces, clean air, blue skies, all kinds of animals, and snow in the winter. While we had to weather the occasional tornado, it was a wonderful place to call home. There were nearby churches, schools, and even a well-stocked candy store by the filling station that kids would walk to when they had quarters burning holes in their pockets. My father was set to teach in the autumn and my mother was hired to work in a bank, so life was grand for the Millers. Except for one thing: My legs showed no signs of straightening out.

The pediatrician in Missouri got in touch with one in Oklahoma and asked him to examine my legs. He agreed they were growing too inward and fit me with special booties with the toes cut out so that my feet could grow. He said, "She'll probably have to wear them for a year to eighteen months so that her legs will straighten out." My parents were mortified that those little white shoes were attached to a big steel bar that went from one shoe to the other. It would keep my legs in a fixed position, but, as the doctor said, "She's not going to like it."

That first night I cried and moaned. The second night I was still uncomfortable but didn't do much fussing. My mother recalls that by the third night I had a determined look on my face that told her I could handle it. For the first time in my life, I was faced with a physical obstacle that I would not give in to. Even at that age I refused to be limited and made the best of a bad situation. My mother remembers that when I was about eight months old, I began crawling and pulling myself up in my crib, as if I had no impediment. Before my first birthday, the doctor took off the bar and examined my legs. He said, "Wow, they look straight!" I never had to put on those shoes again, but I still keep them as a souvenir, a reminder of challenges overcome.

The doctor broke it to my parents that because I wore the special shoes I would begin walking later than most kids. As it turned out, I crawled at eight months and walked before my first birthday, just as Tessa had. Maybe I didn't realize that not every child had a bar to drag around. I was ready to move and if I had to take that bar with me that was fine by me. I had proved the doctor wrong. For years to come I would make it my mission to defy the expectations of people who said I was too young, too small, too shy, too injured, and, toward the end of my gymnastics career, too old. It would be a recurring theme in my life that I tried to match or better people's expectations. Even today, I feel the need to prove my worth by disproving someone else's contention that I can't do something. Maybe it stems from my competitive spirit or simply a lifelong desire to please everyone.

That first time I proved someone wrong about me it wasn't by design. I was too young for that. But I feel certain I was motivated. I couldn't afford to be slowed down; I had to keep up with my older sister in everything she did. When I was eighteen months old and Tessa was three and a half, my parents bought an old jungle gym at a garage sale. Tessa quickly learned to climb to the top and stand on the platform, and, sure enough, soon after I doggedly climbed to that platform myself. Perhaps this foreshadowed my aspiration to stand on podiums during my gymnastics career.

When I was four, my mother enrolled six-year-old Tessa in a jazz and ballet class with a few of her friends. Naturally, since Tessa was taking dance I was desperate to take it as well. My mother wanted both of her daughters to enjoy dance, but money was tight and she was hesitant to pay for lessons for me until I was old enough to reap the benefits. Oh, I wasn't happy. I had a special relationship with my grandma Rosemary Murff, so when I next spoke to her on the phone I tactically shed a few tears until she promised to pay for my dance lessons. She told my mother that "if she doesn't get anything out of the lessons, it will be my money wasted, not yours." Maybe my mother thought dance was a smart alternative to my racing my new baby brother, Troy, around in my doll cart, because she gave in and signed me up for dance twice a week.

I learned what was considered jazz dance and a little ballet, but at that age, I was simply gaining a foundation. Still I fell in love with dance and couldn't wait to perform at the December recital. I was so shy that I let Tessa talk for both of us when we interacted with strangers, yet I was thrilled to have the opportunity to perform in front of an audience and show what I'd learned. The timid girl just vanished when I put on my leopard recital costume. I wore it around the house and for several years it was my Halloween costume. I don't know how well I actually danced, but my mother was surprised that I was just as studious and serious about the lessons as Tessa. Had I proved her wrong?

Both my parents were physically active, playing tennis on the neighborhood courts and racquetball at the YMCA. But my mother took it to a different level. She participated in a number of activities over the years to keep active including swimming, softball, horse jumping, and even just climbing the stairs at work on her lunch break. She was constantly in motion. Mom wanted her kids to follow her lead. When she was a young girl, her father, my grandpa Chester Murff, urged her to do as many push-ups and sit-ups and run as fast and far as her brother, Lloyd. No limits. No excuses. Now she encouraged her own daughters to be as physically active as any boys our age. We had unbridled energy and were eager to try any daily activity to fill the time between our dance lessons. She didn't care what we chose as long as we stopped spending our free time tearing up her furniture. So when we begged for a trampoline for Christmas, she didn't object.

My parents were able to purchase a trampoline at a yard sale for a hundred dollars, a huge gift for us. When they brought it home, it was snowing and the temperature was in the single digits, but we couldn't wait to try it out. So we ganged up on my poor father, who was one of four boys in a military family and could build or fix anything. He had set it up for us, finishing a good ten seconds before we were bouncing on it. He would be the only one in our family not to use it over the three decades it remained in the backyard. Even my mother did a front flip or two.

Tessa and I loved jumping and doing flips on our "awesome" Christmas present. What made it even more of an adventure was that we had a big, crazy dog that we could get past only by doing a mad dash from the back door to the trampoline. In truth, Ebony wasn't dangerous, just a little rambunctious, but to us, my goodness, we were trying to escape from a terrifying monster. While my parents were glad to see us having fun doing an activity, they had no idea we could be such caution-to-the-wind daredevils and began to worry. They became concerned that their fearless young girls would kill themselves on that old-style trampoline. It had no netting or pads, and when we'd bounce off the springs we'd fly off onto the grass.

Around this time Tessa decided to move on from dance, and I begrudgingly gave up my first love, too, so that I could follow my big sister to whatever she did next. For a while, all we did to pass the time were stunts on the trampoline. Determined to find something safer to occupy us and channel our energy, my mother opened the yellow pages and looked for "Gymnastics."


My mother randomly called three local gyms and enrolled Tessa and me at the first one that got back to her. It was called Adventures in Gymnastics and was located a five-minute drive from our house in a large concrete building. Walking through the door for the first time was not as magical as entering a gorgeously manicured ballpark or stately arena. It was just a sweaty, nondescript facility with a lot of floor space and really high ceilings. Having never watched gymnastics on television, I looked around for trampolines. There were none. I didn't recognize any of the apparatuses that were spread about into four areas that were not entirely separate from each other. My eyes widened as I watched some girls tumbling and flipping around on mats and other equipment. I thought, "Oh, I want to learn to do that! I know I can do it!" I was excited and couldn't wait to do somersaults!

Although I had no clue what gymnastics was, it never occurred to me that I couldn't do anything those girls could do, even the older ones. My down-to-earth, rational, hardworking parents had instilled in Tessa and me the idea that if we dedicated ourselves, there were no limits to what we could accomplish. Dream big and go for it. I combined that lesson with my innocent childhood belief that nothing was too scary to try and my stubborn determination to not give up until I reached my goal. That was the surefire recipe I'd follow as I entered this new, challenging world of gymnastics.

Adventures in Gymnastics was run by Jerry Clavier, who was the perfect first coach for me, although I thought he was too tall to have been a gymnast himself. Away from his gym, he worked as a nurse. When Tessa and I first arrived, Jerry told us to put one leg forward. She put her right leg forward; I put my left. I am right-handed when I write and when I throw a ball or swing a bat, but it turned out that I was a lefty in gymnastics. That meant I would twist left, split better with my left leg, and lunge with my left leg forward.

Of course when you begin gymnastics you can do very little that looks like actual gymnastics. Early on, tumbling was what I loved most. What I learned to do first were forward and backward rolls, cartwheels, and handstands. My mother remembers that I quickly learned from Jerry how to do a back handspring (a backward flip with support from your hands), a backflip, and even a full twist. I also apparently experimented on my own and did a whip back, which is kind of a back handspring but without your hands touching the floor. It was a fun skill because you literally whip yourself through the air backward.

Meanwhile, I learned that the vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise were the four apparatuses, or events, in gymnastics. On television the terms "apparatus" and "event" are pretty much interchangeable, with "apparatus" being more formal. On each apparatus, you learn skills and the skills make up a routine that you might do in a competition or exhibition. Adventures was a recreational gym that taught skills and fundamentals but didn't enter its young gymnasts in competitions. At the time, I didn't know there were even such things as gymnastics competitions and was more than satisfied to learn and practice new skills. I wasn't one of those kids who grew up dreaming of being an Olympian. I grew up wanting to be my sister.

At five years old, I went to the gym for an hour in the afternoon five times a week. I wanted more. Jerry believed both Tessa and I had the potential to merit more hours. Tessa, who was in a different class, decided she had too many other interests, including swimming, to make such a commitment and decided to leave the gym. For the first time, I didn't follow her. She was probably a bit relieved that her kid sister wouldn't be tagging along anymore, just as she was when my parents built an addition to our house and she no longer had to share a bedroom. But we had an unbreakable sisterly bond and would find time to do things together on weekends and in the summer.

My decision to stay at Adventures in Gymnastics meant Tessa and I would spend less time together, but I refused to give up this sport that had captured my heart and imagination. It wasn't only that I had so much to learn, which excited me, but that I was a bashful, timid, scrawny, and awkward little girl who had found her self-confidence and self-esteem in this gym.


Excerpted from It's Not About Perfect by Shannon Miller, Danny Peary. Copyright © 2015 Shannon Miller with Danny Peary. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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