Kari Miller had always been athletic, and used to love running and basketball. Volleyball, however, had never been part of her life.
“Girly sports were not my thing growing up,” she says with a laugh. “Girls running around in booty shorts and Spandex. I definitely didn’t want to do that.”
But after she tried volleyball, she was completely sold.
“I loved it from the moment I started. I loved it instantly,” Miller said.
Now she is in London, savoring a silver medal won by the U.S. Paralympic Women's Sitting Volleyball Team Friday.
She is in a place where she never imagined she’d be.
Nearly 13 years ago after serving in the U.S. Army in Bosnia and South Korea, Miller was back home in Washington, D.C., visiting with friends. While on their way to IHOP, the car she was riding in was hit by a drunken driver. Her friend who was driving the car was killed. Miller, then 22, lost both her legs.
As part of her rehabilitation, she explored various sports. She quickly ruled out some, including swimming, because, as she joked, “I don’t want to mess up my hair.” Volleyball, however, quickly became the sport of choice, and by 2006, she made the U.S. Paralympic sitting volleyball team.
Miller’s big break came at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, when she was a part of the U.S. sitting volleyball team that took home the silver medal.
“It was awesome,” Miller said. “It was such a great experience to have our family there, to represent our country.”
Miller is one of the older players on the U.S. team. But she also has made it a priority to take the younger players under her wing.
“The only thing I stress to them is their skill,” said Miller, who is the team’s top libero, a defensive specialist. “I tell them that you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t one of the best players in the world. I tell them to remain confident and to remain positive.”
There exists the possibility that this could be the final major competition in Miller’s sitting volleyball career. Now 35, Miller plans to get her PhD in the near future. And she has also been working closely with the Citi Every Step of the Way program, which supports the rehabilitation of wounded veterans through various athletic programs.
She also has worked with veterans as a Paralympic ambassador and she helps introduce them to the Paralympic Movement. Miller has visited veterans who are still in their hospital beds, when she said they are thinking, “This is going to be the end of their world.”
“Then I come boppin’ in with two missing legs and a gold medal and that gives them hope,” she said.
“I just love being able to give back to the community,” Miller added. “I love telling my story, but I love having a positive impact on others. I absolutely love that.”
Among the sports that the Every Step of the Way program uses to appeal to the wounded veterans are track and field, aquatics, archery, and of course volleyball.
“We try to rotate as many different sports as we can,” said Miller. “Like I grew up loving basketball, but then I realized that volleyball is my sport. So we try different sports with everyone.”
That is the main theme with Miller — that you never know when you’re going to switch sports, when you’re going to switch careers, or when your entire life direction is going to switch drastically at the drop of a hat.
And when Miller thinks back to that fateful day back in 1999 — when she lost her legs but her friend lost a life — and says that her life changed forever, she actually means that it changed for the better.
“I would never have gone to all of these countries that I’ve gone to, because of playing volleyball,” she said. “I wouldn’t have met so many great people. I’ve had so many great experiences. And I’ve learned a lot about myself. I know that I’m a lot stronger because of playing sports. And I’ve learned a lot about patience. It’s made me a better person than I think I would have ended up being because of the accident.”