HOUSTON -- The last time most of us saw Shannon Miller she was leading the victorious U.S. women's gymnastics team to the medal stand at the Atlanta Olympics.
Clearly at the peak of a long and glorious career with seven Olympic and 10 World Championship medals, she had accomplished everything she had set out to do when she started in gymnastics at the age of five. At 19 she was considered well past the prime age for her sport.
After the Olympics she finished high school, started college, stopped competing and got married. She started a normal life.
Five months ago normal disappeared when she told her coach in Oklahoma City she wanted to try to be a part of the U.S. Olympic team.
Coach Steve Nunno listened, but he was skeptical.
"When I was in his office I was scared because I was afraid he was just going to laugh at me and think I was kidding," the 23-year-old Miller said Saturday. "I went in there and he kept a straight face, I'll give him that."
Miller is one of nearly 100 U.S. Olympic hopefuls in Houston this weekend for the U.S. Olympic Committee Media Summit. The athletes have a chance to tell their stories to the newspaper, radio and television reporters who will cover the Olympics in Sydney on Sept. 15-Oct. 1. The reporters have a chance to get to know the athletes before they face the pressure on the world stage.
Nunno said he told Miller to come back the next day because he didn't want to talk about it. He wanted her to think about what she was getting ready to do.
"He wanted to make me remember what it was really like," Miller said. "He said `Don't just remember getting up on the gold medal stand. Remember the Saturday morning that you did not want to come in and work out. And that you were sore and hurting or injured and you still had to work through the pain. Remember those times and if you still want to do it after you remember those times, then OK, I'm gonna coach you."'
Nunno, whose wife had just delivered their third child, also had to think about whether he wanted to plunge his family into the madness of an Olympic try. Successful Olympic athletes must be surrounded by a protective support team that places the Olympic effort above all else.
Amazingly everything fell in place for Miller. No one tried to tell her she was too ancient to try to compete in a kid's sport. No one tried to coax her back into the rocking chair.
She has been working to get back into shape since January, moving up from once a week to four times weekly. She is starting to learn some of the new tricks that have appeared since she left the sport.
"I'd have to say that I'm very discouraged," said Miller, looking anything but discouraged."Because while everybody else is competing I'm learning. I'm looking at them and going oh oh. But everything kind of comes in time.
"And even on the worst day I know I made the right decision."
Miller will know soon whether her quest is successful. A committee from USA Gymnastics will select the team after the National Championships this summer and the Olympic Trials in August.
Part of what makes Miller's attempt possible is a change in scoring rules.
"The tiny little pixies that used to be running around the floor now they are swapped with more mature, all-around athletes," said national team coordinator Bela Karolyi. "This is a plus for our sport. You see the maturity. You see the ability to put your personal feeling on the floor."
Younger girls also are excluded because you must now turn 16 during the Olympic year to compete in gymnastics. And specialists on one apparatus now will be valued as much as all-around performers because of a change in the way individual scores will count in the team competition. So it will be easier for the selection committee to make a sentimental choice like Miller.
Karolyi also likes Miller's chances to make the team.
"She is representing what I consider a solid work ethic which actually made her such a famous, such a great athlete in her career," he said. "But she is representing the sturdiness, the visibility and also the dignity of the team."
Miller is more concerned about getting in shape than what she might represent.
"I was surprised at how quickly you lose the skills, but you don't lose the mental aspect," she said. "You don't lose the awareness or the things you spent so long to learn. Once I got my body back in shape things came pretty easily."
Miller said she doesn't know what the upper age limit might be for gymnastics.
"No matter what your age or what number's up there as long as you're healthy and you still feel like you can do it and you still do do it, then why not try it," she said. "I think people are starting to realize that if they love the sport just stay with it. There's no longer this kind of stigma to it. A lot of times they get better after 17, or in some sports after 25 or 30. It's just realizing that and not setting limits on yourself and saying no one may have done it before, but I can do it.
"Kids benefit because they realize they don't have to do gymnastics for just a couple of years and then they're washed up and done. They can do it as long as they want to do it, as long as they enjoy it. The sport benefits because we can bring a little more grace and experience and elegance to the sport," Miller said.
"I'm still shooting for the stars. I always have. I always will. In everything that I do I will always do that. I think my age won't limit anything. My head will limit some things if I let it. But I'll just keep pushing forward and having goals for every day I go into the gym."
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