Shannon Miller

Shannon Miller: happy, healthy, optimistic

It's 101 days to go Tuesday until the opening ceremony in London, and Shannon Miller is in Chicago, up early, on the telephone, happy, healthy, talking about gymnastics, about Nastia Liukin, about how records are made to be broken, about how the 2012 U.S. women's team looks really good. It's all good.

Of course it is. Any day you're cancer-free is, as Shannon Miller makes plain, a great day.

It was just a little bit over a year ago that Miller, America's most-decorated gymnast, was diagnosed with a form of ovarian cancer.

During an annual exam, doctors discovered a baseball-sized cyst,  a germ cell malignancy, on an ovary. The cyst and ovary were removed. Miller then opted for several weeks of preventative chemotherapy said to improve her cure rate to 99 percent.

Early detection -- as ever in many cancer cases -- is key, she said.

A few weeks ago, Miller turned 35; she was 33 when the tumor was discovered.  "With something like ovarian cancer, you think it's for older women," she said. "Cancer doesn't care how old you are. It doesn't care how many gold medals you have. It doesn't discriminate."

Shannon Miller has two gold medals, both from 1996 in Atlanta, the team gold and the individual balance beam. She has five more from 1992 in Barcelona, two silvers in the all-around and the beam and three bronze medals, the team and the individual bars and floor.

For those counting, she also has nine world championship medals.

Nastia Liukin won five Olympic medals in Beijing in 2008. That's of course the same number Miller won in Barcelona.

Liukin, the 2008 all-around champion, is now in training for London. It's unclear whether she can repeat as 2012 all-around champ. She didn't, for instance, even compete at the 2011 world championships; Jordyn Wieber, a 16-year-old from East Lansing, Mich., was the all-around winner, and the Americans surprisingly won team gold.

Then again -- Liukin, when she is in top form, can deliver an almost ethereal performance on the uneven bars. Gymnastics insiders know that the 2012 U.S. team is almost surely going to need a strong bars performer. Might it be Liukin?

"My feelings on Nastia -- I love her," Miller said.

"I see a beautiful, beautiful athlete. I see that classical style. Because I went through my own comeback," from Barcelona to Atlanta, "I see in her that wanting to learn new skills, to wanting to be with my gymnastics family again, to feel that adrenaline rush. I understand that competitive rush.

"If anyone is going to break my records, I would be glad to turn it over to Nastia. That's what the U.S. should be doing. I would be sad if my records stood for decades. Because that means no one would be coming along for decades and decades. It needs to happen."

Since 2000, the U.S. women have dominated world gymnastics, winning 60 world and Olympic medals -- no other nation has more than 35 -- and producing the last two Olympic champions.

But -- the Americans have not won team gold at the Games since 1996.

The American roster this year is so deep that picking five -- that's all you get -- from the roster of 20 on the national team will doubtlessly be an enormous challenge.

But it also, for gymnastics experts and casual fans alike, ought to produce intense interest.

That's what Miller was doing in Chicago -- promoting a meet there at the end of May, the Secret U.S. Classic, a let's-see-what-you've-got-in-your-routines in time for the June 7-10 Visa national championships in St. Louis, which are themselves a get-ready for the Olympic Trials June 28-July 1 in San Jose.

That's a lot of gymnastics to get through before London. At the same time, it's an enormous competitive advantage. Because the five who make it surely should be honed and ready.

Miller said, "I really feel like this year, we are obviously going to … put five incredibly talented, maybe the most incredibly talented, athletes we have ever put out there."

She said, "It's kind of theirs to lose at this point."

And then she added, speaking only about gymnastics but in a reference that bore the wisdom of someone who knows what really matters in life itself, "I think it comes down to: will they be healthy?"

The Karolyi way -- U.S. women are winners

The biggest name in American gymnastics, the outsized personality, is Bela.

Everyone, it seems, knows Bela Karolyi. In their minds' eye, they can see Bela with Nadia Comaneci, and that was in 1976, well before Bela and his wife, Martha, made their way to the west. They can see Bela with Mary Lou Retton in Los Angeles in 1984. Perhaps most memorably, there is Bela holding Kerri Strug after Kerri's vault in Atlanta in 1996.

Bela is and forever will be Bela.

You know what, though? Martha is formidable, as everyone who is close to the sport has well understood for a very long time, and the American women proved it yet again Tuesday, winning the 2011 team world championship in Tokyo with a roster missing the stars most casual American gymnastics fans have come to know over the past few years.

This was a young team, a new team, and still the Americans didn't miss a beat.

Indeed, by the final rotation, the floor exercise, the U.S. team was so far ahead of the defending world champion Russians that the final American up, 17-year-old Aly Raisman, only had to score better than an 11 -- a really low score in elite gymnastics -- for the U.S. to win. She did, easily, with a 14.666, and the celebration was on.

The Americans finished with 179.411, more than four full points ahead of the Russians, with 175.329. China took third, with 172.820.

The U.S. men, meanwhile, won their first world team medal in eight years on Wednesday -- a bronze, missing silver by a mere 0.010. China won gold, Japan silver.

The 2011 world title matches the gold medals the U.S. women won in 2007 and 2003. It also makes the U.S. women favorites for team gold next summer in London.

"This team victory exemplifies the amazing program that has emerged over the past 11 years under the leadership of Martha Karolyi," Steve Penny, the president and chief executive officer of USA Gymnastics, said.

"The athletes, coaches and everyone connected to the program contributed to this success.  This," he said, "is another very proud moment."

This also underscores, yet again, that the Martha Karolyi way, which means the American way in women's gymnastics, works -- a direct challenge to, for instance, the Chinese, or others, compelled from their youngest years to live away from home, away from their families, and do gymnastics in a state-sponsored system.

Martha is the U.S. team's national coordinator. She and Bela have a ranch down in New Waverly, Texas, out in the woods about an hour's drive north of Houston's international airport.

Here's the essence of the Karolyi way:

Promising gymnasts live at home and train at their local gyms with their own coaches. On a regular basis, they come to the Karolyi Ranch, where the girls train under Martha's watchful eye -- and the coaches, not incidentally, learn and share together.

Make no mistake. Martha is demanding, physically and mentally. And the U.S. selection process, under Martha's direction, is rigorous, intentionally so.

But here is the thing. If Martha is exacting, Martha is not outrageous. There is a fine line, and she walks it. It's why gymnasts who have lived the Karolyi way come back for more, sometimes years later. They know that she not only can but does bring out their best.

At the same time, this, too: gymnastics can be really hard on the body. As this summer proved, that means pressure all around -- on the girls and on Martha, too.

The U.S. selection process included the national championships and then two more competition-style training camps at the Karolyi Ranch.

At the championships, Chellsie Memmel -- who was on the silver medal-winning 2008 U.S. Olympic team -- suffered a shoulder injury on the uneven bars. At the same meet, Rebecca Bross, the 2010 U.S. all-around champion, hurt her knee.

At one of the selection camps, Mackenzie Caquatto hurt her ankle. Then, in Japan, uneven bars specialist Anna Li strained an abdominal muscle; and, finally, almost unbelievably, Alicia Sacramone, the U.S. team captain, tore an Achilles tendon during a practice tumbling pass.

Shawn Johnson, the Olympic gold medalist on the balance beam in 2008? She wasn't available in Tokyo. In the midst of a comeback from a knee injury, she's due to be competing at the Pan Am Games later this month in Mexico.

Nastia Liukin, the all-around gold medalist from Beijing? She wasn't in Tokyo, either. She just announced an intent to mount a comeback for London.

Bridget Sloan, who like Shawn and Nastia was on the 2008 Beijing team? Like Shawn, Bridget will be at the Pan Ams.

Several of the other teams in Tokyo had six healthy athletes. The U.S. women had only five: Raisman; Jordyn Wieber; McKayla Maroney; Sabrina Vega; Gabrielle Douglas.

This kind of intensity is also the Karolyi way.

Raisman gathered the others around and said, in essence, let's do this. "I told all the girls, 'We're going to remember this for the rest of our lives and just to go out there and own it and have fun."

Wieber, the 2011 U.S. all-around champ, said, "We were confident and aggressive and we just did our job. It turned out awesome."

Here's an exclamation point to the awesomeness:

The Americans ended up with 46.816 points on the vault -- more than two points better than any of the other teams, and that without Sacramone, the 2010 world champion in the vault.

Because Sacramone was officially a member of the team, she earned a 10th world championship medal. That's an American record. She had been tied with Liukin and Shannon Miller, with nine.

Martha observed that this was a "very young team" and that they had "prepared physically very well," but "we were not so sure if they would hold up very well under the pressure."

She said, "These girls proved they did the right preparation, physically and mentally," and if you know Martha you know that "mentally" was absolutely the key. "I'm very proud of them."

She also said, "I'm very satisfied. This is my passion. Every time the results come out as you plan, you are certainly extremely happy. That's how I feel today -- happy and proud of the program and of these young ladies."