By Luke Baynes
Few of the several dozen gymnasts huddled on the main mat of Green Mountain Gymnastics on Saturday were born when Shannon Miller won gold on the balance beam at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
But that fact didn’t abate the air of giddy excitement in the Williston gym as a video was projected of the routine that won Miller her first individual gold medal and cemented her legacy as the most decorated gymnast, male or female, in U.S. history.
Miller’s beam routine that day was exquisite, with a flawless execution of a front flip, a tumbling pass with two layouts and a move simply known as the “Miller,” a back dive with a quarter twist to a handstand, followed by a half pirouette.
The recorded cheers from the Atlanta audience for the 19-year-old Shannon Miller segued into applause from the Williston crowd as the video faded and the group of young, mostly female gymnasts turned their gazes to the smiling face of the 35-year-old Miller, who strode to the podium with a confidence that belied the severe shyness that plagued her as a youth.
“It’s always a little bit weird watching that video, because every time I think, ‘OK, this is going to be the day when I don’t land the dismount,’” Miller laughed.
At 35, the petite, toned Miller looks like she could still perform a precise round-off back handspring on a moment’s notice—and stick the landing. It’s all the more remarkable when one considers that she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer less than two years ago.
Miller’s talk at Green Mountain Gymnastics came the morning after an appearance at the University of Vermont’s Dudley H. Davis Center, at which she spoke as a guest of the Eleanor B. Daniels Fund, a nonprofit research and fundraising group for the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Fletcher Allen Health Care.
“I was able to talk about the idea of competing with cancer and how my gymnastics background has really helped me compete in this other battle, and how the lessons we learn through sport help us every day in regular life,” said Miller, who today is cancer-free.
In addition to her candidness about her disease, the professional gymnastics commentator spoke frankly about Gabby Douglas, who won the individual all-around gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Miller contrasted Douglas’ performance at the 2011 U.S. National Championships, at which she “completely imploded on the balance beam” and made “mistakes that you should not be making at the Olympic level,” to the 2011 World Championships, where she had a mediocre individual performance yet won a team gold medal.
“She won a gold medal, and she went home from that competition more confident and more empowered than ever before, and it was like a switch turned on with this girl,” Miller said. “This girl came from basically you wouldn’t put her on the world team, to winning the first Olympic all-around gold medal for an African-American. It’s a tremendous story.”
Miller positioned Douglas’ story as a lesson that a gymnast should never give up, even during practice.
“Every time you get up on the beam, it is go time. It is gold medal at the Olympic Games time,” she said. “Treat that routine as if this were the routine of your life.”
Laurel Evans-Daiffenderfer, 10, of Williston was impressed by the fact that Miller admitted the pre-routine fears she felt at the 1996 Summer Games, even after winning five medals at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
“I’ve been trying to do my round-off back handspring, and I’ve been scared,” Evans-Daiffenderfer said. “The next time, I’ll try to do what she does.”
Thirteen-year-old Posie Nash-Gibney of Essex Junction, who has been a gymnast since she was 2, was also impressed by the presence of Miller, whose biography she first read when she was 8.
“It’s really cool that she came,” Nash-Gibney said. “Most of the time you don’t really meet someone that’s been so important to gymnastics history.”