Olympic great Shannon Miller on surviving cancer and why ‘you learn so much more from failure than perfection’
The Relax is Yahoo Life’s wellness series where experts, influencers and celebrities share their approach to wellness and mental healthfrom 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 much to be thankful for, but it’s not all thanks to the medals or records she set from the age of 15 when she first competed in Barcelona. Miller, now in his forties, has just hit 10 years as an ovarian cancer survivor — no mean feat — and while she real as she looks forward to the upcoming Summer Olympics, her perspective is bigger than the games.
For Miller, who completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Houston and later earned a law degree from Boston College, the Olympics gave her a platform, a platform she wants to use for the greater good. In 2017, Miller became involved in: 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 Miller, a mother of two, was happy to have access to during her diagnosis and treatment.
The Olympic fan and commentator recently spoke to 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 little things.
What is your daily approach to mental health?
My mental health is also related to my physical and emotional health. When I get physical activity, sleep, rest and recovery, focus on family and gratitude… all these things combine for my mental health. I try to focus every day on checking in with myself. We get so caught up in our to-do lists and the things we need to do every day that we forget to check in and ask ourselves: How are you today? In what areas could you use some help? How do we make that possible? Check in with yourself.
What is the message you want to share about cancer survival?
I want to make sure women are aware of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer, as well as the support available to them. I wish I had a show like 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 part ends, people really feel alone, and not just patients, but caregivers and family members as well. I also want to let people know that making health a priority is not selfish. We’re busy and we don’t want to be selfish, but we’re not – and early detection can really save your life.
Do you have any little self-care rituals that will make your day better?
My favourite [rituals] sleep a little extra [laughs] and physical activity. I can see that when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I just need sleep. I’m a believer in 10-minute workouts – take a walk, get some fresh air. It’s so important to take those moments when you feel overwhelmed or unproductive, to get out of that feeling. I do 10 minutes of physical activity; it’s fast, it gives you energy, it shakes things up, my mind works a little better. Those things are important to me: I’m introverted and get energy from being alone and having time to regroup. It is important to understand how you get energy. When you find what works for you, stick with it.
Besides physical activity, what brings you more joy?
My joy is my children. It’s so fun (and sometimes silly) to watch them grow and see the world through their eyes. But it does give me joy to see them learn something new or solve a problem. Finding my joy every day is also about gratitude: stopping to think about things to be thankful for. During my battle with cancer, I clung to gratitude. There were days [that were about] just waking up in the morning, just 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 little things?
If you are going through something traumatic and difficult, the blessing may be that you discover that there are many things that you can let go of.
What gives you stress?
Disorganization and change can stress me out, but I work very hard to stay grounded and not get too stressed about things. Sometimes stress is motivation, but I don’t like surprises [laughs]. I have become much harder to stress as I get older; you go through too many life experiences and in terms of health it is good to keep it at a distance.
I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten milder at all, but I’m a lot harder to stress these days. I really just let things go. [But] when I was an athlete I wanted everything to be perfect. Trying to achieve perfection: the perfect step landing, the perfect routine, the perfect 10… That’s what I strived for every day. Through the cancer process – and motherhood and life – you realize that there is no “perfect” and that no one has to be perfect.
What is your mantra for life?
“It’s not about perfect” is a. I have different mantras for different points in life, but for me that’s all. 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 about it. Do your best. All you can do is go out there and give it 100 percent — no matter how big or small the task — and then stop worrying. When you do the work, you can be proud of the result, even if it isn’t quite to your liking.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
A lesson I learned early in my career was that it’s not about getting something right the first time – it’s about getting there: the mistakes, the journey. Make the mistakes, fail! You learn so much more from failure than from perfection. It translates to every aspect of our lives. If you don’t know how to get back up, it can be a tough road.
We tend to only see the end result and not the work it took to get there, right?
Absolute. I emphasize that the gold medal is not actually won on the day of the competition – it is won with the hard work and preparation, year before athletes ever stepped on the ground. People forget that it’s the thousands of waterfalls that got us to that point.
What are you looking forward to in the upcoming games?
EVERYTHING! I love the Olympics! I was in the ’92 and ’96 games and before that I had never sat down to watch. When I moved to the broadcast side in 2000 and beyond, 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 is your favorite Olympic memory?
In 1992 it was my first Olympics, I was 15 years old, kind of homesick – it was a time before the internet and social media – and you’re just there with your coaches. I remember being in 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 years old [who] hadn’t seen anyone from the US for weeks, they felt like family [laughs]. Fellow Americans! It was nice to see them and not feel so alone at the Olympics. Getting the chance to represent my country… the experience is absolutely surreal.
And then, in 1996, walking into the Georgia Dome, in your homeland, seeing the sea of red, white and blue, hearing the chants of “USA” – all the support you feel throughout the competition, [the American fans] lifted us up. It really makes a difference as an athlete.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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