Gold Medalist: What Training for the Olympics Taught Me About Money
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Four years ago, the women’s U.S. gymnastic team, dubbed the “Fierce Five,” took home Olympic gold. This year’s all-star team (another “Fierce Five” lineup) is expected to repeat that feat at the Games in Rio, which begin today.

But before the fives, there was the “Magnificent Seven,” the 1996 Olympic dream team that earned America its first-ever team gold medal in gymnastics. Its leader: gymnast Shannon Miller, who’d already racked up five medals in the 1992 Olympics before returning four years later to win the gold on the balance beam and lead her team to victory. Twenty years later, she remains the most decorated gymnast in American history. 

After retiring from the sport at 19 (yes, 19), she harnessed the same determination that wowed millions in the Olympic arena and channeled it toward achieving success in a different realm: Miller earned degrees in marketing and entrepreneurship, followed by a law degree. And in 2010, she launched her company, Shannon Miller Lifestyle, dedicated to empowering women to prioritize their health through education and awareness.

We talked to Miller about life after gymnastics, and how she’s used lessons from her Olympic training to successfully manage her business ventures and her finances.

How did you develop your passion for gymnastics?
I started with my sister when I was 5 and fell in love. My passion was all about learning. I wanted to learn a new skill or a more difficult routine. I always wanted to do a little bit more.

It sounds like learning has been a big driving force in your life. Is that why you pursued three degrees?
Education was a priority in our household. Even when I was training seven hours a day, I was expected to keep up with my work and get good grades. After I retired, I continued on with my undergraduate degree and found that marketing was a natural fit because of the partnerships and opportunities I had through gymnastics. On the heels of my degree, I was one of 30 students chosen for an extra two-year entrepreneurship program at the University of Houston.

At the end of that program, I took a business law class, which showed me how much I still needed to learn. I had been signing contracts since I was 18, yet I had no idea what they truly meant. I didn’t want to leave my future up to luck or someone else’s interpretation of the contract. So I studied for the LSAT and thought, “If I do well and get in, great. If I don’t, it’s not meant to be.” Luckily, I did well and chose to attend Boston College Law School.

What made you ultimately decide to launch Shannon Miller Lifestyle?
I had been speaking and working in the health and fitness field to some degree most of my life. It was natural to talk about the lessons I’d learned through high-level training that could also be applied to other people.

I was looking for a way to put all of the things I was doing under one roof. I had previously worked with producer and director Nick Furris on a series of goal-setting videos, so I went to him with an idea to create fitness books and pre- and postnatal workout DVDs. (My husband and I had just found out we were expecting our first child.) I could see that he was as passionate about the possibilities as I was, and we began working together.

What advice would you give young people hoping to start their own businesses?
It’s critical to set goals. I believe in dreaming big, but “dreams” are not “goals.”  You can take that dream, create a plan of action and it can become a goal.

You also need a passion for what you do. Maybe it’s the product you’re creating or the process by which you produce it. Maybe it’s bringing people together. But find what you enjoy, have a goal and then develop a strategy to achieve it.

Finally, surround yourself with positive people that can help you further that goal, as well as folks who can poke holes in your plan and give you constructive criticism.

How has your experience as an Olympian influenced the business decisions you make today?
I am fortunate to have been able to create a company that embodies the things that I believe in: balance in life and making health a priority. One of the greatest things about my job is that every day is different. But that variety also makes it tough—I have to be on top of many goals and wear several hats each day. That’s something I loved about gymnastics, too: I was constantly learning new skills and taxing my mind and body in new ways.

What financial advice would you give your younger self?
Save, save, save! I didn’t think much about my finances until I retired from gymnastics because I was so focused on training. Then at age 20, after I’d finished touring and was back in school fulltime, I decided I wanted to handle my own finances. My parents had done a good job keeping track of everything, but once they turned over control, I didn’t know what choices to make. The little advice I received was all over the map.

I think young athletes should find several folks that they trust, as well as a few impartial sources, to gain a better understanding of where they want to be in the years to come. I had planned and set goals for gymnastics; I wish I’d done the same for my finances.

What was the best financial advice you ever got?
Someone gave me the book “The Millionaire Next Door.” It was helpful in emphasizing that no matter how much money you make, it’s important to save.

What’s been the biggest financial mistake you’ve made?
Buying a house at 22. While this wasn’t a critical mistake, it wasn’t something I needed to do. I was still in school and not planning to live there long-term. I didn’t realize how much was involved with owning a home and all the extra things I’d have to pay for.

I was fortunate that I had no trouble selling it. But the frugal side of me kicks myself for spending money on decorating, lawn care, appliances and space that I didn’t really need at that time. All of those little things add up to money I could have been putting away.

How about your best financial decision?
Realizing that saving a little can go a long way. When you’re rushing through the store trying to get everything before you pick up the kids or head back to work, it’s easy to forget to look at prices.

My husband and I both regularly scan our credit cards statements so that we understand what we are spending. Sometimes I’ll think, “Okay great, that item was pricey, but I’m glad I got it.” Other times I’ll think, “Whoa, how many toys did the kids talk me into?!”

What’s your most frugal habit?
I try not to make snap decisions. I’m happy to follow the three-day rule and take a few days before I purchase a big-ticket item. Often I realize I don’t really need it after all. And for everyday purchases and groceries, I always make a list. My son and daughter help. It’s much easier to say “no” to something if it’s not on the list.

What thing will you always make room for in your budget no matter what?
I am constantly on airplanes, lifting my kids or sitting behind a computer, so I’m a big fan of getting a deep-tissue massage. It was a regular part of training when I was competing, and I’ve found it’s good for life as well. It helps with circulation and relaxation, and it’s one hour when I get to put the phone down and do nothing but enjoy!

What do you consider your best investment?
I’m very conservative when it comes to investing. I’ve had many offers to invest in or partner with different gyms, gymnastics centers or other businesses. I’ve always shied away from those because I didn’t personally know the people running the business, and had no control over the outcome.

My biggest investment has been my own company. I wanted to build something that would be financially sound, have the opportunity for growth and help inspire people to make their health a priority. We’ve been profitable from day one, which is pretty exciting. We focus on lean business practices and stay true to our brand, which ultimately is what helps make us successful.

This has been updated to include information about the 2016 Summer Olympics.

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