Kari Miller goes from Bosnia to the backcourt
When Kari Miller awoke, she knew what had happened. Her mother, Mary Lanauze, sat before her, as doctors and nurses worked nearby in the small hospital room. Miller was intubated and couldn't speak. She motioned for a writing instrument and paper, so her mother handed her a yellow legal pad and pen. Lanauze kept the pad and says she recently found it, more than a decade later, while cleaning out her attic.
Miller, then a vibrant, athletic 22-year-old, took the pen and slowly wrote her first communication after surviving a car accident that took her friend's life and forever altered her own.
"I know I don't have my legs," she wrote.
"Don't be sad. I'll be OK."
On a recent November Saturday in Edmond, Okla., Miller, now 34, makes a few phone calls during a break from training with the U.S. Women's Sitting Volleyball team. The squad is working out together five days a week from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. (Miller also lifts three days a week) at the University of Central Oklahoma in preparation for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. For the past several years, Miller has been named the best libero -- a defensive specialist -- in the world, including at the 2010 world championships, where the U.S. team won a silver medal.
In May, head coach Bill Hamiter will announce the 12-member Paralympic roster. Miller, a lifelong basketball player and military veteran who had never tried volleyball until she lost her legs, likely will be one of those names.
Miller was born in Newark, N.J., and grew up in Washington, D.C. Lanauze was 15 when she had her only daughter. Miller's brother, Michael, was born six years later, and the family of three became very close. Lanauze was determined for her children to receive a strong education and worked two jobs so she could afford to send her children to Catholic school.
Throughout her childhood, Miller was an athletic, tenacious, intelligent girl. She stood 5-foot-4 by her senior year of high school but never let her size be a deterrent, particularly in her favorite sport of basketball. Lanauze, who had played and coached basketball, impressed that love upon her daughter. They are similar in personality -- humorous, driven women who unabashedly speak their minds.
"I was really big into sports," Lanauze said. "I never was one for cheerleaders, and you either join a sport or cheerleading in school, so I pushed her toward sports and basketball."
After graduating high school in 1995, Miller wanted to attend college but couldn't afford the tuition. Her aunt and several family members had served in the military, so she decided to enlist.
Miller loved her first year and completed basic training before traveling to Bosnia for her inaugural deployment. There, she worked as a transportation management coordinator, organizing the routes and plans of the units, deciding what equipment they'd use and coordinating the travel logistics.
Miller also planned various units' R&R trips, testing out potential vacations before a group arrived. "One of the spots was Budapest, so I'm sitting there in a bikini, on a yacht, heading to a vineyard and I'm thinking -- 'This is my job?'" she says, laughing.
She served in Bosnia for almost a year, then moved on to a brief assignment in Korea. After returning to the U.S. in December 1999, Miller's commanding officer informed her that she had enough college credits -- earned through satellite courses at the University of Maryland -- to enroll in officer candidate school. Ecstatic, she called several friends to celebrate with her Dec. 19. They decided to go to a new downtown bar Miller had heard about. After several hours, she and three friends drove toward IHOP for an early-morning breakfast. Miller sat in the front seat next to the driver, a male friend; her other two friends sat in the back.
Suddenly they felt something slam into them on the back right side of the car. Their car began to spin violently before crashing into a telephone pole. The driver died almost instantly, and Miller awoke to find herself pinned, with her legs crushed between the passenger-side dashboard and the pole. They'd been hit by a drunken driver speeding at 80 mph. After the accident, he and his passengers tried to run away, even though one of them had suffered a broken leg.
Miller drifted in and out of consciousness. When awake, she felt a crushing sensation in her chest -- her lungs had collapsed, and she couldn't breathe. Paramedics worked to remove the roof of the car and Miller, struggling for air, recalls telling them, "You can cut my legs off, I'll forgive you, just get me out of here."
The next thing she remembers is waking up in the hospital -- "I totally missed my helicopter ride," she says, laughing. Paramedics had cut her legs off at the accident scene to extract her from the car. Both backseat passengers survived with minimal injuries.
Surgeons amputated Miller's right leg above the knee, her left leg just below it. Once she awoke and realized what had happened, she never looked back. Instead, she joked with her family about how now, once she had prosthetic legs, she could be the 5-foot-8 height she'd always wished for. "I was just happy to be alive and out of the car," Miller said. "It didn't fully register with me then."
After several days, she moved into a Washington, D.C., rehabilitation hospital. Her strong network of family and friends visited her often and played a vital role in her recovery. One afternoon, when several family members left to attend a party, Miller began crying because she couldn't join them. Her nurse, worried she was depressed, gave her medication. When Miller's mom arrived, "I was on cloud nine, talking super-fast and happy," Miller said. "I'm an optimist, but not like that. My mom was like, 'What's the matter with you?'"
Lanauze marched out of the room and instructed the nurses not to give Miller any medication before clearing it with her first. She did not want her daughter addicted to painkillers. "She told me, 'You don't need to take pills to hide how you're feeling -- if you're sad, allow yourself to be sad,'" Miller remembers. "'Go through it and make it to the other side. If you take stuff to hide it, you'll never get past it.'"
In early February 2000, Miller was released from the hospital. She used a wheelchair while a prosthetics team worked to build her a pair of legs. She returned to her job in marketing and production at Eagle Publishing while trying to navigate a life without the other job she loved: serving in the military.
"A lot of who you are as a person in the military is tied up with being in the military," Miller said. "To have that identity taken from you, it's like, 'What do I do next? I don't have legs, I'm a single woman. ' Who am I? I'm different now."
Miller's mother had a friend who played in a wheelchair basketball league, and Lanauze suggested Miller try it. She attended her first game and soon afterward was playing her favorite sport a new way. She also regained her confidence after talking to teammates who'd gone through similar experiences.
"That really opened me up to sports again and gave me something to latch on to," Miller said. "You can ask them about dating, you see them playing with their kids, just living life. And then I think, 'OK, I could have a life, too.'"
A few months later, Miller received her prosthetic legs. Because she's an AK BK (above-the-knee, below-the-knee) amputee, she had to learn to walk with one mechanical knee and one of her own. Gradually, she became more comfortable, learning to run, bike and even rock climb on her prosthetic legs.
After Miller played several months in D.C. wheelchair basketball leagues, one of the coaches from the University of Illinois team heard about her and asked her to join its nationally ranked squad. Miller, then 24, decided to try out for the U.S. Paralympic team. But with the frame of a 5-4 woman, she still struggled defending and blocking the shots of women who were 6-4 and taller. She didn't make the team. Depressed, she decided to give up sports and find other interests.
A friend suggested she try sitting volleyball, a sport Miller had never played. "All I'm thinking when I hear volleyball is booty shorts, a sport for prissy girls, and I am not wearing spandex -- this is not happening," she says, laughing.
Miller was offered a free trip to Atlanta for a sitting volleyball clinic. Her first time on the court, Miller said she "screamed and dashed out of the way" when another woman served the ball in her direction. But she quickly learned the fundamentals of the game and, at the last minute, decided to try out for the 2004 U.S. Paralympic Women's Sitting Volleyball team. She didn't make the cut.
"So the coach sits with me and he goes, 'You know, you're very athletic, but you suck, basically,'" Miller said. "At the time, I was thinking, 'You should've taken me.' But it's true. I had no idea what I was doing then."
Miller kept training and tried out for the U.S. Paralympic team in 2006. She's a libero, one of the key defensive positions responsible for passing it up to the setter with hard, controlled hits, and using her speed while anticipating where the ball will go. She made the U.S. squad, which finished fifth in the world championships that year. Upon returning home, she transferred to the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond to train with her team members while continuing to take courses.
"She's always been a player that understands the dynamics of team," Hamiter said of Miller. "Things that need to be done with new, younger players ... how to get the most that we can out of them. As a veteran, she's very good in that aspect."
Miller won a silver medal in 2008 with the U.S. Paralympic team in Beijing. After returning to the U.S., she began working with the Paralympic Military Program at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She served in several capacities, including teaching wounded soldiers how to use sports in their recovery as well as working with the families of the soldiers in adapting.
"You can see the hope come back," Miller said. "It's easy for a doctor to say it, but for someone to actually see it in someone like me, it makes a difference."
Miller also helped to develop sports-based programs for wounded soldiers throughout the country. She traveled around, instructing the cadre on how to teach the fundamentals of sitting volleyball as well as how to offer the support necessary.
"I am a huge fan of hers because she is one of these individuals that really inspires people and pushes them," said John Register, associate director of community and military programs for the U.S. Paralympics and retired two-time U.S. Paralympian. "She doesn't let them settle for the status quo -- she pushes them on that road and helps them along the way. You can see it when she's teaching and instructing."
That encouragement carries over to her sitting volleyball teammates. At 24, Kendra Lancaster is the U.S. women's team captain. She's known Miller since the two met at a camp in 2004.
"Kari is a great leader because of her playing, which speaks for itself," Lancaster said. "But she's also very strong emotionally and doesn't let things get to her if we're having an off match. She holds us all together."
When Lancaster was injured in a car accident earlier this year, Miller talked with her throughout her rehabilitation, checking in each week and sharing the latest team news. "She's just a good friend," Lancaster said. "She's someone who is always there for you."
Miller, who completed her undergraduate degree in biology, hopes to enroll in a Ph.D. program in physical therapy after the 2012 Paralympics. She lives with her boyfriend, Jonathan, who's also a veteran, in Edmond, though she's often traveling around the country as an ambassador for the U.S. Paralympics.
China is currently the No. 1 team in the world; the U.S. is No. 2. After the 2012 Games, Miller is not sure what's next, but knows she won't be slowing down.
"She's pretty much the same Kari -- her personality is consistent with how she's always been in life," Lanauze said. She talks about when Miller first learned to ride a bike with her prosthetic legs. After three or four times riding up and down the sidewalk, Miller fell. The bike shop assistant rushed to help her, but Lanauze stopped him. "I said, no, she's gotta figure out how to get up herself,'" Lanauze remembers. "And after about 10 minutes, she did."
Now, when Miller returns home to visit her mother and brother in D.C., their favorite activities are hiking around Great Falls, Va., and going on long bike rides.
Miller never asked what happened to the driver responsible for the accident. She heard he went to jail. "I really felt badly for him -- for both the family of the man who died and the man who has to live with the fact that he killed someone," Miller said.
She's moved forward, learning to love a sport where she embraces each new test. "I love the challenge of it, how you can have the ball come at you the same way 99 times, but each and every time it's different on how you may react," Miller said.
And when asked whether she wishes her life had been different, if she'd never gotten in the car that December night, she doesn't hesitate.
"I would definitely play it out the same -- I don't have any complaints," Miller said. "I am having a great time."