Sport Controlling the controllable: Shannon Miller on mental, physical health for female athletes
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Former Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller is an advocate for prioritizing the controllable and that includes physical and mental health. She spoke with FanSided about her work.
In basketball, you can't control whether the ball goes in. You can only control your effort, form and decision-making. In golf, you can't control the wind, but you can control your swing. Even in the sport of gymnastics, athletes find themselves completely out of control sometimes.
A gymnast can perfectly do her routine, reach her dismount, flip once, then twice, and become completely disoriented. She's no longer in control and needs to gain it quickly or risk injury. Gymnasts call this the "twisties" and it's happened to some of the best, from Simone Biles to Shannon Miller.
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They don't always come in the form of disorientation from a dismount or twisting too quickly in a Rudi. Sometimes they come in literal and figurative ways.
In the 1990s, Miller was climbing the ranks. She took home back-to-back all-around championships in 1993 and 1994 and was part of the "Magnificent Seven" in the 1996 Olympics, taking home gold in the balance beam and with the team. It was the ultimate bragging right.
To add, she was in the best physical condition of her life, save for a few injuries. She credits her team doctors and training staff in Oklahoma, providing her comfort in her sport.
"All of the decisions were made as a team, so I felt comfortable that I had a voice even from an early age if I needed to share if something wasn't right," Miller told FanSided in a recent interview. "So I felt very fortunate in that aspect."
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This comfort can also be attributed to how she navigated the realm of gymnastics. Miller realized there was more to life than the sport, echoing statements we've heard from Biles. But when athletes walk away from a sport, those "uncontrollables" can be daunting, especially as a retired Olympian.
Shannon Miller's uncontrollable moments came in many waves
Many athletes struggle with the abrupt end of competition when retiring from a sport. Over 64 percent of Olympic athletes face insomnia according to research citedby The Gazette. But, the uncontrollable comes in many forms — depression, anxiety, identity loss. The end of one's athletic career is something many don't think about when it comes to the pressures of being a competitive athlete.
"No one's cheering for me when I do six loads of laundry, or when I get an A on my test," said Miller with a laugh. "But you go through this very challenging time be it Olympic, collegiate or professional when you have to focus on finding yourself and 'who am I'. Kind of that soul searching process."
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For Miller, who she is would be an advocate for the exact things her doctors, parents and trainers made sure to help her speak up on: physical and mental well-being. Though she advocated for others' taking control of their health, she was eventually blindsided by one of the biggest "uncontrollables" of her life.
Ovarian cancer became the biggest test of mental and physical endurance Shannon Miller ever faced
10 years ago, Miller went in for a routine checkup, she'd walk out knowing that she had ovarian cancer. It was disorienting, like a bout of twisties with no sight of a clean landing. It was the polar opposite of winning a gold in Atlanta, where she was at her peak physical health … this was the biggest uncontrollable she'd ever face.
But there was a silver lining that drew the two situations together.
"As polar opposite as those two things were, it was the mental aspect that remained the same. So it was the lessons I learned through sport to help me with the goal setting and teamwork," said Miller. "It was positive mental attitude and resiliency…"
The mental parallels is what pushed Miller to battle the diagnosis head-on and become 10 years cancer-free.
Like any gymnast, basketball player, golfer, or average Jill, there are times when you have "uncontrollables," or "twisties," moments of disorientation no matter how much planning and preparation you do. Sometimes you have a split second to change the outcome, other times you have a spotter or foam pit to break your fall.
Regardless of how you land, it's how you choose to navigate after you regain your footing. For Miller, it's teaming up with Ascension, one of the largest non-profit healthcare systems. Miller and Ascension are looking to let women know that the controllable is attainable for everyone. Check out what Miller and Ascension are working on.
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