Meet the Competition

Shannon Miller was the most successful American athlete at the 1992 Olympics, having won a total of five medals, and is the tenth most decorated gymnast of all time. Listen to her thoughts on the impacts of competition…

Competition to me was all about remembering lessons from practice; ideally I made my mistakes in the gym, not when there were judges watching.

Shannon Miller

[My coach] always went over routines with me before an event. He knew I didn’t need pep talks because I was eager to get out there. But he did like to center me, focus my thoughts. The green light came on, I saluted the judge or panel of judges and I was ready. Not that I didn’t make plenty of mistakes, but I thrived on competition.

I’d walk out there, my adrenaline pumping, and my fears and pain would disappear, and I suddenly transformed into someone I wasn’t in normal life. How did this quiet bookworm, who had trouble catching a ball or walking down the street without stumbling, suddenly turn into this graceful creature? How did this wallflower, who was too scared to raise her hand in class, become such an intrepid performer?

I can’t solve the mystery entirely, but I had an uncanny ability to compartmentalize and, for ninety seconds on beam and floor, thirty seconds on bars, and only a few seconds on vault, forget who I was outside the gym. I worked hard, playing mind games with myself, to reach that point. When I first became a competitor and walked through that threshold at the smaller competitions, I pretended that I was confident. I had to trick myself into believing that I was a good gymnast and that I belonged in the competition. And little by little I actually became supremely confident when I walked out onto the floor.

I finally began to see myself as a talented athlete and competitor. I began to believe in myself. I felt like mild-mannered Clark Kent going into the phone booth and emerging as Superman. I was so self-assured when I slipped on my long-sleeved competition leotard that I could perform in front of enormous crowds, folks watching at home, and austere judges, and not feel inhibited. Instead, I felt courageous, empowered, and all the things that I wasn’t like off the gymnastics floor.

From her book: It’s Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life

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