Paralympic medalist Miller talks volleyball, Memorial Day and more
Paralympic volleyball player Kari Miller won silver in '08, eyes another berth in '12
Miller lost both legs in a car accident and now works with wounded veterans
Work with veterans has taught her the importance of holidays like Memorial Day
Kari Miller, 35, is a libero (a specialized defensive player) for the U.S. women's sitting volleyball team, a 2008 Paralympic silver medalist and a 2012 Paralympic hopeful. She's also a military veteran, having served in Bosnia and Korea in the late 1990s. Returning to the U.S. in 1999, Miller was a passenger in a car hit by a drunk driver at 80 miles per hour. The driver of Miller's car was killed. Miller, pinned by a telephone pole, had her legs amputated. She spoke with SI.com as part of the Citi Every Step of the Way program benefiting the U.S. Paralympic Military and Veteran program.
SI.com: Can you recall an interaction with a wounded serviceman or woman that speaks to what the Paralympic Military Program is about?
Miller: A guy, mentally, he was depressed. Or upset. He had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). He comes in, and everybody would be having fun, playing volleyball, having a grand time. He'd come in, and I'd be like, "Man, why are you always upset?" He's like, "I'm not upset. I just never smile." So he sits down one time. It was his time to serve. He takes the ball and he tosses it up, serves it. And he makes an ace, instantly. Everybody's jumping around and happy. He jumped up and down. He's smiling and happy. In my mind, I'm thinking, Oh, you never smile? Those little victories.
SI.com: You made the decision to amputate your legs after a car accident caused by a drunk driver. Can you take me back to that night?
Miller: I was still in the car, and I couldn't figure out why I couldn't breathe. It felt like somebody was pushing my ribcage. I just couldn't breathe. It steadily got worse and worse. I passed out for a second. When I come back, I look up and the top of the car has been cut off, and there was a guy laying on top of it -- a fire rescue guy. I tell him, "Can you help get me out of here?" He was like, "Yeah, we're trying now. You're wrapped around a pole." I was like, "Can't you cut down the pole?" He said no. In my mind, I just felt, The pole is worth more than me? I was a little upset, and it was getting worse and worse for me. I looked up to him and told him to do whatever (he) had to do to get me out. I know I'm crushed. I know I'm wrapped up in here. If you have to cut my legs off, it'll be fine. I'll forgive you. It doesn't matter. Just get me out of here. He gave me a hug. He gave me a needle. He knocked me out. Next thing I know, I'm in the hospital.
SI.com: How much pain were you in?
Miller: I was in shock. I wasn't in pain. I just couldn't breathe. It was horrible, being suffocated. My lungs had collapsed, so basically no air was getting to me.
SI.com: Did they tell you the injuries were threatening your life?
Miller: My injuries were severe. The hospital actually called my mom and told her that I had passed.
SI.com: I know there's a memorable story from your time at the hospital involving a piece of paper.
Miller: I'm laying in the hospital bed. I wake up. I have a tube down my throat because my lungs had collapsed. My mom comes up, and she looks so scared and a little lost. My mom's a very strong woman, so it scared me. She says, you can't talk. You have a tube down your throat that's breathing for you. But you can write. She gave me a piece of paper and a pencil. She asked what happened to me. I wrote that I was in a car accident. She asked if I knew everything. I wrote that I did; I had lost both legs. Then I wrote, "At least I can be as tall as I want to be now." (Miller had been 5-foot-4.) Then I could see the fear and anxiety melt away from her. I knew that she was going to be OK, which meant that I was going to be OK.
SI.com: What was the hardest thing to relearn after the accident?
Miller: Walking. Driving was easy. Everything else was easy to figure out. Walking, because I was (amputated) above-knee on one leg and below-knee on the other. It was figuring out how to walk in one body, two different ways.
SI.com: As a former high school basketball player, you gravitated to wheelchair basketball pretty quick, but how did you hear about sitting volleyball?
Miller: I didn't make (the U.S. Paralympic wheelchair basketball team in 2004). At that time I was kind of upset. What do I do next? (Two-time Paralympic champion wheelchair basketball player) Carlee (Hoffman) ended up coming to me and said, "Hey, why don't you try sitting volleyball?" I've always loathed two things: cheerleading and volleyball. Volleyball because they have these little booty shorts on. There's no way I'd walk around in those little Spandex things, everything hanging out.
SI.com: Then what convinced you to stick with the sport?
Miller: I ended up going to Atlanta (for a sitting volleyball camp). They explained it to me. If a ball comes down here, use your forearms. If the ball goes above your head, use your hands. I'm ready. I'm practicing in my head, getting my body ready to move. This girl tosses the ball up, and she swings, and it comes directly to me. I was sitting there thinking, do I go up with my hands or do I go down with my forearms? Finally, I was just like, Abort! Abort! I screamed and jumped out of the way of the ball. It was like going a million miles an hour. The coach there said, "There's no screaming in sitting volleyball." From that point on, I was like, Yeah, I think I'm going to love this sport. I
SI.com: What does Memorial Day mean to you?
Miller: Before I joined the military, Memorial Day was nothing more than a holiday. I'm off, we can go to the beach, you know? Once I joined the military, Memorial Day still wasn't a big deal. It really wasn't a big deal to me until after I got injured and started meeting people from Vietnam or other wars. You realize how important it really is to take that time to thank or to commemorate these individuals who have given up so much for us.
SI.com: What's something unique about your time in the military?
Miller: My job was awesome. I was a transportation management coordinator. ... Part of my job, I would go to places where the soldiers would do R&R, count them as they come off and then show them around. I was like on vacation time. It wasn't total vacation, but part of my job was to ensure people were having fun.
SI.com: The U.S. took silver behind China at the 2008 Paralympics and the 2010 world championships. What's standing between the team and gold in London?
Miller: Ourselves. If we don't let fear or anything get in the way, I think we are a far deeper team. I think we are now at a point mentally where we can handle anything that comes our way.
SI.com: Say you win gold in London, do you continue with the sport afterward or go out on top?
Miller: I really don't know. Volleyball's been such a part of my life. I probably would like to go into some coaching. I don't know if I'll stop playing though. I have to listen to my heart and my body after (the Paralympics). As long as I can contribute, I will. But if I'm not contributing to the team in a positive manner, then I don't think I would even deserve to be there.
SI.com: When was the last time you cried?
Miller: The other day, I was watching Glee, and my favorite couple broke up. That was sad.
SI.com: So Glee makes you cry. Did you cry the night of your car accident?
Miller: No. Pain doesn't really make me cry. Emotional stuff makes me cry.