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Record-Holding Gymnast Shannon Miller Talks About Pressure And Mental Health


When the gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from some competitions at the Tokyo Olympics, she said she wasn't in the right mental space. Seemingly everybody has an opinion about this, but Shannon Miller's opinion is informed by experience. She still holds the record for winning the most Olympic medals as a U.S. gymnast. She was part of the Magnificent Seven Squad who won gold in the '96 games. So she knows the pressure of the Olympics. And she spoke with A Martinez.

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: So, Shannon, hit it right off the bat, I mean, what did you think when you heard the reason why Simone Biles decided to withdraw from competition?

SHANNON MILLER: Well, you know, I'm not sure if any of us can completely be in Simone's mind. Only she knows what's going on. From her words, kind of understanding the gymnastics term twisties, which is basically a losing your spatial awareness in air mid-flight in the middle of a skill - that is a very important thing for gymnasts in particular to be flying 10, 15 feet above the air, twisting, turning, flipping and not know where you are. That could lead to devastating consequences. So it happens to gymnasts all the time. But to have it happen at that moment during the team competition is so frustrating.

MARTÍNEZ: Has it happened to you?

MILLER: Well, I didn't have as big a skill as Simone does, and I didn't do a lot of twisting. I had - but I can recall having a mental block at one point going to do a - just a skill on any of the bars that I had done probably for, you know, five years, competed it. Now, it happened at a training session. So I was able to take a break and and kind of recoup and over the next two weeks, basically relearn the skill. And then I didn't have a problem again. But in this moment, she doesn't have two weeks. She's not at a training gym where she can go do the skill into a foam pit or with extra spotting and extra mats. She's out there on the competition floor having to make that decision in a split second.

MARTÍNEZ: And so how do elite athletes deal with that stress in that moment? I mean, you mentioned how you don't have time. But, I mean, Simone Biles, if she wanted to try and power through it, so to speak, how would she have done it?

MILLER: Well, mental blocks are not something you power through. If you have a physical injury and you're going into competition, you have to know your body well enough to know, is this an injury I can push through? And it might hurt, but I'm going to be safe. And it's the same with mental blocks. You have to know when that moment is that you can push through and when that moment is where it is not going to happen, and you're putting yourself at further risk.

MARTÍNEZ: Shannon, you've been advocating for women taking care of themselves. And that seems to be exactly what Simone Biles did. What's your reaction to that, to her to just take a step back and realize, I need to worry about me right now?

MILLER: I'm a 10-year ovarian cancer survivor. And my advocacy started long before my own diagnosis in helping women make their health a priority. It's it's really about helping women put their health first and not feel guilty about it. You know, oftentimes, we're taking care of our kids and our family and our jobs and everything else, everyone around us. And oftentimes, we feel guilty for making our health a priority. And so nobody is a better health advocate than you are for yourself. You know your body best.

MARTÍNEZ: Since Simone Biles pulled herself out, there's been a lot of talk about this mind-body connection for athletes. How how intertwined are they to reach max performance?

MILLER: Well, you know, I don't think this is a new discussion. I think any athlete out there will tell you that the mental aspect of sport is just as important, if not more so than the physical aspect. So that's something that we actually train. You train the mental along with the physical.

MARTÍNEZ: Aside from elite athletes, Shannon, how can just people be more in tune with this mind-body connection? Because, you know, it's one thing for Simone Biles, an elite athlete, to deal with this and talk about this. But there's plenty of people that - you know, they stock supermarket shelves or they go and do a job that requires some sort of physical exertion. And maybe they're not in tune because they think, well, that's not me. I'm not an elite athlete. I don't need to worry about this.

MILLER: I didn't really understand how to take care of my health and well-being. I did as an elite athlete. I had to be in tune. My body was the tool that I use to be the best in the world at something. But life is, I think, a lot complicated. You're dealing with real-life issues that are a lot more challenging - for me, at least - than walking on a balance beam. There's a lot more of a juggling act, so many stresses, so many things that you're having to battle each and every day. And a lot of times, our health just gets lost in the shuffle.

And so that's why I feel like if I can use my platform to help people remember to focus on their health - don't delay those appointments. Listen to your body. Speak up to your physician when something doesn't feel right for you. Stay on top of that. I called up to cancel my women's exam because I was just too busy. And luckily, I thought better of it, and that was the morning that my mass was found on my left ovary. And that appointment likely saved my life because they caught my cancer fairly early. And I think that's the point - is don't delay. Don't put off these exams. And make sure you have that open line of communication with your physician.

MARTÍNEZ: That's seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller. Shannon, thanks very much.

MILLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.