Last Friday in Birmingham, England, a 16-year-old American girl displayed a measure of self-control that even a palace guard would envy. Shannon Miller, all 4'9" and 76 pounds of her, seized the all-around title at the world championships of gymnastics with an eerie composure that is fast becoming her trademark. Not until the final score of the last competitor was posted was Miller's victory assured, yet she responded to the news of her win with just a mild sigh and a flicker of a grin. "I didn't worry about the score," she said later. "I had done my job, and wherever I finished I would be happy."
Miller has been in the spotlight since she got the silver medal at the 1992 Summer Games, but all the attention has not made her outgoing. She remains shy and self-possessed, a sophomore who earns straight A's at North Mid High in Edmond, Okla., while working out six hours a day, six days a week. "People criticize Shannon, saying she has been programmed," says her coach, Steve Nunno. "And she is programmed. But she programs herself."
Miller does remember doing one endorsement after the '92 Olympics, a TV ad for Trivial Pursuit. Did she have to utter any lines in the ad? she was asked last weekend. "Um, yeah," said Miller. Well, was it true that she had grown two inches since last summer? "UM, yeah." Had she had to alter her routines because the rules now demand new degree-of-difficulty moves? "Um, yeah." Her prolixity aside, some things have changed for Miller since Barcelona. Last week she frequently found herself disappearing beneath a mound of signature hunters. She also arrived in Birmingham as the favorite. "It was expected that we'd win," Nunno says. "If anybody beat Shannon, she was going to beat herself."
After a strong performance on the uneven bars, Miller scored poorly (9.625) on the balance beam because she took two extra steps on her dismount. That left her in fifth place. She began her stolid climb back into contention with a 9.825 in the floor exercise. Nunno then faced a devilish choice on Miller's final event, the vault: Should she go with a double-twisting Yurchenko, on which the highest potential score is 10, or a full-twisting Yurchenko, with which she is more comfortable but which maxes out at 9.800. Nunno opted for the full, and Miller twice hit it flush: 9.775 and 9.800. Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, Md., had a chance to surpass her, but she stumbled on both her vaults and ended up fourth. The last competitor, Gina Gogean of Romania, also entered her final event, the floor exercise, with a chance for gold. But Gogean scored a 9.800, and Miller won by "a James Bond." as Nunno put it: .007.
On Saturday, during the finals of the individual-apparatus competition, Miller's steel nerves even conquered an upset stomach, which had caused her to scratch from the vault. As it turned out, Miller was only marshaling what little energy she had for her best event, the uneven bars. She struck gold with a 9.887, the best score in any event in the first five days of the competition. Then on Sunday, her health not fully recovered, she fell off the beam twice to score a dismal 7.850 but came roaring back to win the gold in the floor exercise. At this rate, Miller may one day be an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question herself: Who was the greatest U.S. women's gymnast ever?
The new world gymnastics champion is short on words but long on composure.