Down-to-earth Miller rises to top

January 23, 1994|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

For the record, Shannon Miller, the reigning queen of the gymnastics world, will tell you that she is just an average high school girl from Edmond, Okla.

There's nothing special to this tumbling, twirling 16-year-old, 4-foot-10, 79-pound sprite, who eats Frosted Flakes in the morning, plays with her puppy and goes to the movies when her schedule allows. Or so she says.

Yes, Miller, who is only the second American woman to be crowned all-around world champion, will be the person most eyes will be focused on at today's Reese's World Gymnastics Cup at the Baltimore Arena, but she is just plain folks and not caught up in the trappings that can accompany talent and fame.

"I go to public school and I get to do a lot of things that other kids my age do," Miller said. "I get to go to the movies as much as everybody else."

Don't believe it, for Miller is not the average high school student, or at least not when she slips into her leotards and attacks the gymnastics apparatus. She is too good there to be average.

Her silver medal in the all-around competition at the Barcelona Olympics was the highest finish ever by an American gymnast at a nonboycotted Games.

Miller's five medals (two silver and three bronze) were the most by a U.S. athlete at the 1992 Games, and she just missed the all-around gold medal, won by Tatiana Gutsu of the Unified Team, by 12 hundredths of a point, a remarkable accomplishment considering that she had dislocated her elbow four months before the Olympics.

The Games were a blur to Miller, as she and her teammates were largely sequestered during the competition and shuttled from their dormitories to the dining hall to practice and the arena, with few stops in between.

"It was exciting to meet all the people from different countries, but we didn't really walk around much," Miller said. "That [the opening ceremonies] would have been a lot of fun, but we didn't get to participate in that because we were in competition the next day. I don't think it [the Olympics] was quite what I thought it was going to be because I didn't see much of it."

Miller hasn't slowed since returning from Barcelona, winning all-around honors in three international competitions last year, including the world championships in Birmingham, England, where she also won gold in the uneven bars and floor exercise.

Miller says she would "love" to compete in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. The chance to win a gold in the United States is "the one thing that is keeping me in gymnastics right now."

Indeed, while Miller is clearly enamored of the sport that has brought her so much fame, she acknowledges that there are pitfalls.

For one, there is the enormous drain of her schedule. Miller's day begins with a 90-minute workout before five hours of school and continues after classes with a five-hour training session and then homework.

Miller is no spring chicken by gymnastics standards, where today's 16-year-old queen is pushed aside by the latest 15-year-old sensation. Miller is the second youngest participant at this meet, but none of the 10 entrants is older than 19.

Miller, who has grown two inches since the Barcelona games and will be 19 during the Atlanta games, is heading toward physical maturity, and those changes will certainly bring on changes in what she can do on the various gymnastics equipment.

"Your body changes, you put on more weight and the skills change too," Miller said. "It [the training] is almost like a full-time job, but it's a fun job because it's something I like to do."

One of the things Miller appreciates about the sport is the sense of friendly competition. All of the participants travel together and come to befriend each other on a comfortable level, so there's no visible sign of beefy bodyguards and no talk of shadowy plots to ruin competitors.

"I couldn't believe that [the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan] happened in figure skating. That's just unbelievable, and that wouldn't happen here," Miller said. "In gymnastics, that [the competition] is a lot more low-key, because there's six spots on the [Olympic] team and not two."

Still, the Kerrigan incident has made Miller "a little more self-conscious." She says she receives fan letters from people aged 5 to 86 and some mail from prisoners on death row.

"You can't just look at the bad ones [letters] and say they're all bad," Miller said. "Most of them are really nice."

These are clearly good times for Miller, who is just as determined to remain normal as she is to be the best in the world.

"Most of the pressure I feel is what I put on myself," Miller said. "No matter what meet I'm in, I want to do my best, and nobody puts any more pressure on me than I put on me."

FACTS AND FIGURES

What: Reese's World Gymnastics Cup

Site: Baltimore Arena

When: Today, 1 p.m.

Competitors: Confirmed participants include Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller, Betty Okino, Kim Zmeskal and Trent Dimas of the United States and 1988 Olympic gold medalist Dmitri Bilozerchev of Russia.

Format: Each gymnast will compete in five events for men (floor exercise, pommel horse, still rings, parallel bars and horizontal bar) and three for women (uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise) and in the all-around. Prize money is $150 to $2,000 for each event and for all-around competition.

Scoring: Any routine can receive a maximum of 100 points, with a maximum of 30 points in three separate categories, difficulty/combinations, execution and exercise presentations with the possibility of 10 bonus points.

Ticket information: Many available. Prices are $14.50 and $22.50 ($45 seats are sold out). They are available through TicketMaster outlets by phone at (410) 481-SEAT or (800) 551-SEAT or at the Arena box office. For more information, call (800) 536-5817.

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