This Olympic Icon Beat Cancer Nearly 20 Years After Making History

Photo: Courtesy of Memory Jade.
If you're old enough to remember, there's one Olympic Games that stands out: The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. It was filled with iconic moments and major wins for Team U.S.A. across the board. But it's probably best remembered as the summer of the "Magnificent Seven" — the first U.S. women's gymnastics team to win Olympic gold as a team. One of those magnificent gymnasts was Shannon Miller, who also took home an individual gold medal for her performance on the balance beam that summer. Over the span of her career, Miller won a combined total of 16 World Championships and Olympic medals between 1991 and 1996. To this day, she is the most decorated gymnast of all time — male or female. She's also the 10th most decorated Olympian ever. In 2010, Miller revealed that after a routine exam, her gynecologist discovered what he thought was a baseball-sized cyst on one of her ovaries. He told her not to worry, but after months of testing and a procedure to remove it, that cyst turned out to be a malignant germ-cell tumor, which is a rare form of ovarian cancer. Miller then underwent several cycles of chemotherapy between March and May 2011. Five years later, she's cancer-free and raising awareness for young women. Now a mother of two, Miller recently joined cancer survivors across the country to support Extended Stay America's Hotel Keys of Hope, which provides free and discounted room rates to cancer patients traveling to receive treatment. Refinery29 spoke to Miller about her life now, her work raising awareness for young women, and her place in Olympic history.
Photo: Courtesy of Dave Black.
Shannon Miller competing on the balance beam at the 1996 Olympic Games.
The Olympics are just one day away — so we have to ask, what's your favorite Olympic memory?
"I have so many great memories of both my Olympic Games. But I think that first day of competition, when you walk into the arena and begin to grasp the enormity of representing your country on the world stage — it’s a mix of nerves, excitement, and pride. It’s amazing!"
You're an Olympic legend. How does it feel to have a place in Olympic history and be a role model to so many young women?
"It’s amazing to speak to people today or see them at events and hear their Olympic story. Everyone seems to know exactly where they were and what they were doing during those summer games. It is incredibly special to know that we were a part of people’s lives in such a positive way. I love that it makes people smile."
Is there anyone on this year's team who you love to watch compete?
"Well, I love watching good gymnastics. So I love watching them all! Simone [Biles] is just incredible, and I am really interested to see how Laurie Hernandez will do. She is only 16, but she is already a fierce competitor!"
You've been very open about your cancer diagnosis and treatment. Can you talk about why it's so important for women to make their health a priority? Even for people who always think, It's never going to happen to me?
"I have been an advocate for women’s health long before I faced my own battle. I want women to know that it’s okay, in fact it’s necessary, to make their health a priority. That might mean a little more sleep or regular exams. It might mean small changes to your diet and exercise regimen. "We all feel invincible at some point in our lives. People think about Olympians as those who are focused on health and wellness every single day; it’s basically our job. Sometimes it’s a reality check to know that cancer and all the other health issues don’t really care how many gold medals you have. We have to take care of ourselves."
You've been cancer-free for years. Did your battle change your perspective on life or change you as a person in any way?
"I think it reinforced my faith and many of the lessons learned through sport. My faith is first and foremost, and then I looked for ways to focus on goal setting, teamwork, and a positive attitude. I think the biggest change for me was being forced to slow down. "There were days I could barely get out of bed. I might have gone from the bed to a chair in our bedroom, and that was my success for the day. I used to move from challenge to challenge without much thought of the accolades or accomplishments. But now I understand the importance of stopping and enjoying each moment, especially the small ones."

Sometimes it’s a reality check to know that cancer and all the other health issues don’t really care how many gold medals you have. We have to take care of ourselves.

Why was the 2nd Annual Hotel Keys of Hope℠ Cancer Survivors Reunion such an important event for you?
"I was honored to be asked to speak during this incredible event. I never imagined I would have the courage to talk openly about my ovaries! But it’s critical to create awareness. My mother is also a survivor from a completely unrelated cancer. "I saw what she went through, and I want to help celebrate survivorship in every way possible. It’s also important to highlight the good work that companies are doing to help those who have been diagnosed. "This event brought together unique and inspiring survivors from all walks of life with one thing in common, the fight against cancer. It provided an incredible opportunity to meet and connect with the real people who are benefiting from the Hotel Keys of Hope program, who are receiving the life-saving treatment they need with the help of Extended Stay America and American Cancer Society’s hotel-room donation program, and to hear their stories and triumphs."
What are your plans for the future?
"This summer I’ll be in Rio for the Olympic Games. And after that, the focus continues onward with regard to women’s health and fitness through my company, Shannon Miller Lifestyle. We have great partners we work with and some exciting events coming up. In September, we are launching a new line of fitness apparel for women, and I continue to speak across the country. Although the most important thing I have going is being mom to my two kids, Sterling and Rocco."
As you know, so many young women drop out of sports at an early age. What's one piece of advice you would give to young female athletes?
"I like the idea of being 'active.' Just because you finish with one sport doesn’t mean you are no longer an athlete or athletic, it just means your focus has changed. "So I encourage young women to get and remain active, whatever form that may take. You don’t have to be headed to the Olympics to benefit. You 'win' by learning great life lessons, spending time with friends, traveling, and working your mind and body."

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