Shannon Miller: 'Dipa has showed the way for the youth of India'

Seven-time Olympic medallist Miller, who is in India as the brand ambassador of the Tata Mumbai Marathon 2020, was all praise for fearless Dipa.

Olympic medal-winning gymnast Shannon Miller is the brand ambassador for Tata Mumbai Marathon.   -  Vivek Bendre

In her long and illustrious career, Shannon Miller has won seven Olympic medals. On a personal front, the 42-year-old gymnast has survived ovarian cancer and has come back stronger to inspire many.

And during a recent visit to Mumbai, as the brand ambassador of the 17th Tata Mumbai Marathon 2020, Miller admitted that Indian gymnast Dipa Karmakar has motivated young athletes in the country immensely.

At the 2016 Olympics, Karmakar won hearts after finishing fourth in the vault finals. And Miller says that the fearless show by the Indian was indeed inspiring.

With the Tokyo Olympics a few months away, Miller is pinning her hopes on Simone Biles, who dominated the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, four years ago. “All eyes are on Simone at this moment. I am just excited to watch great gymnastics. Simone is 22, she has done an amazing job, she is so much fun to watch,” she said.

Miller’s tally of five medals — two silvers, three bronzes — at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona was the most medals won by a US athlete across the sport at the Summer Games, and she feels that Biles has the potential to topple her record.

In a chat with Sportstar, Miller spoke about the overall scene in gymnastics, Dipa’s future and more…

You have seen Indian gymnastics come a long way. What are your thoughts on the gymnastics scene in India?

I had an opportunity to meet Dipa (Karmakar), which was fantastic. And I think for me, just coming from a sport like gymnastics, really feels like a family, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, or even the generation change. As soon as we meet each other, it does feel like family. So it was fun to meet her. And, of course, I’ve watched her at the last Olympics.

She has done a great job of inspiring so many. And I think that’s often what sport needs, it needs that inspiration. It needs someone to break those barriers and show that it’s possible and then all of sudden, that opens up the minds and the thoughts of a younger generation to say, “You know what, maybe I can do that too…”

You spoke about how Dipa has inspired a lot of athletes. But she has not been able to bounce back strongly after the Rio Olympics because of an injury. Did you get a chance to speak to her on that? What was your advice?

We were actually together on stage (at an event). So, they were asking us the questions. I didn’t really get an opportunity to speak to her specifically about her injuries.

Having observed what is going on, what do you feel should be the way forward for Dipa because she has been out of action for quite a long time now…

You know, I think every athlete is different and I would be careful not to state what someone should or shouldn’t do, because you have to make those individual choices. It depends on the injury and how long that lasts and what is the injury and how does that affect you. I’ve had injuries in my career that I wasn’t able to move beyond and I’ve had injuries that I knew. I wanted to focus on what’s important for long term life and health versus just this one competition. So I’ve been on both sides of that and every athlete has to really think about that and make that decision for themselves and really know what’s in their best interest.

In your long career, you have won seven Olympic medals, which is the highest count in USA women’s gymnastics. Do you think there is a possibility of Simone Biles breaking your medal tally at Tokyo 2020?

Oh, absolutely. I would be shocked if Simone didn’t have that record. I mean, she has every opportunity to do so. So I look forward to it. It’s one of those things where I get the feeling that people think that it’s a sad thing, but it’s not. It is a great thing. It is an amazing thing for sport to progress and for athletes to move beyond. We were inspired by those who came before. And so we hope that we can be that inspiration for others, and Simone is already an inspiration for the next generation or two. So, that’s important for sport to progress.

What do you think are the qualities that make Biles stand apart from the others?

I think for Simone, or at least what I witnessed is this incredible combination of not only highly difficult skills, incredibly difficult skills, and consistency of those skills don’t always go hand in hand. A lot of times if you have a difficult skill, you’re not very consistent at it, or you’re very consistent but you have a lower level of skill. She has both. That makes her virtually unstoppable.

The Tokyo Olympics is just a few months away. What are the areas you think Biles particularly needs to focus on?

I think right now Simone has to just stay the course. I mean, she has every physical aspect prepared or routines are there as we saw at World Championships. So I think really just making sure that she stays the course in the next several months.

Artistic gymnastics is a subjective sport and often we see judges awarding or deducting points depending on their perspective. How can we make the sport more streamlined in terms of scoring?

I think gymnastics has always been a subjective sport that’s just part of the artistry. It’s not crossing the finish line first. It’s not easily detectable as scoring a point. So it’s important to make it a little bit lesser subjective and I think the sport has tried to move towards that. But you’re never going to get away from the subjectivity because it is an artistic sport. I think as an athlete — talking about me personally — I would just go in with the understanding that it is subjective and all I can control is my routine. And so I would always focus on trying to do the very best routine that I could do. And then everything else that happens with the score or the medals, I don’t worry about that so much, because it’s not something I can control.

So, what should be the ideal routine for a gymnast?

Oh, it is a very complicated question. I’m not sure that there is one ideal routine. That’s one of the things that makes gymnastics great — you’re not going to see the exact same routine. You could have two routines score incredibly well, even come up with the same score. And it could be two completely different routines.

You made your Olympics debut in Barcelona in 1992 alongside Oksana Chusovitina, who will be at the Tokyo Olympics at the age of 48. What do you have to say about her longevity and her contribution to gymnastics?

She’s incredible. Definitely what I make of that, it’s incredible to watch her still competing at the top of her game, knowing that I’m sitting and watching her compete at the top of her game, and we both competed at the Olympics in 1992. And I think anyone watching her and anyone that knows her is just so incredibly proud of what she’s done in the sport and what she’s done for athletes taking up the sport, saying: “I’m going to do this as long as I possibly can and as long as I want to, and you can too.” And I think that’s a tremendous thing. She is a tremendous inspiration for a sport that typically does not have a lot of longevity. It has not been unusual for many years for athletes to do one Olympics and retire. Now we’re seeing an athlete compete in two and often three Olympics and she’s a big part of that.

Longevity is the key in gymnastics and most of the athletes have proven that age is just a number. How much do you think has the sport evolved over the years?

I think part of it is physical. The other part of it is the mindset and is a focus on safety and better equipment, more padding. But I think often it has to do with a mindset and watching others who are doing multiple Olympics. That really allowed me to believe after my first Olympics. Of course, I wasn’t done. I could have gone for another four years. So I didn’t really question that because I had watched others do it.

Sport is all about comebacks. In your career, you battled injuries, fought cancer and even then, bounced back in style. How difficult was it to fight the odds and make a comeback?

Personally, yes, I’ve had to had to come back more than once. Leaving and coming back, getting injured and coming back, having cancer and coming back. I just learned through that trial and that you just keep going. And you just try to pick yourself up as best as you can. It may not always be successful, but you just keep trying each time.

Having gone through a similar phase in life, do you think that Dipa can actually bounce back stronger and aim for an Olympic medal?

As far as Dipa is concerned, I think it comes down to what she wants to do as an individual and what the injury is and how difficult it is to overcome. There’s a point where you have to make that decision. Coming back doesn’t always mean winning, it can mean coming back and doing something completely different that you’ve never done before. And that’s winning in a different arena. So whether she comes back as an athlete and wins an Olympic gold medal, or she comes back and reinvents herself as anything else, that’s still a comeback, and it can always be a victory.