Kari Miller competes at the Paralympic Games London 2012 on Sept. 3, 2012 in London.
For Kari Miller, the road to Paralympic gold wasn’t a straight shot, but one full of twist, turns and detours.
But the three-time Paralympian looks back and says each turn was just another exercise of adaptability and perseverance that led to a sitting volleyball gold medal at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016.
While serving in the military in 1999, Miller was hit by a drunk driver causing her to lose both of her legs. Suddenly the multisport athlete who loved to run track and play basketball could no longer do so in the same way.
“My goal was to be an officer,” said Miller. “When I got in my car accident, it kind of changed me. It was like ‘well what do I do?’ I was feeling kind of lost. When my military career began, I met these awesome people from my unit. They were strong black women. One of the things they taught me was to always keep moving forward.”
Miller immediately began searching for sports she could play as a double amputee, then her mother encouraged her to try wheelchair basketball. Miller admitted she was hesitant to pick up the sport until she actually got in the gym and sat in a chair.
“My entire life I played basketball. I thought I was a baller. I’m from D.C., I’m black. That’s what we do,” Miller said. “I got my chair and I’m rolling and rolling. They gave me the basketball, I dribble it, go to shoot and I missed. One of the little girls who’s in a chair, she comes up, scoops it up and make a little layup from the basket that I missed.”
Miller said from that moment on she was determined to master the sport, and as she refined her skills, she was eventually invited to try out for the U.S. Paralympic Team.
Although she felt good about her chances, she wasn’t selected for the final roster and was forced to make another pivot with her college career coming to an end.
As she started looking for another competitive sport, one of her teammates introduced her to sitting volleyball. Miller was, once again, hesitant to start the new sport until she got to the court.
Miller was one of the smallest on the team, but what she lacked in size she made up for with speed, sliding into her role as a leader and libero for the last three Paralympic Games in Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro.
However, Miller said she was close to going back to wheelchair basketball after being left off of team for the Paralympic Games Athens 2004.
“At first it was like, forget that I’m going back to basketball, but then I came around like hey this is a cool sport. It’s a great opportunity and for me, it’s one of the only places that I’m unencumbered,” Miller said. “With this sport, I could take my legs off and I can throw myself across the floor and move. I’m fast and it’s an advantage.”
Miller used her speed to help the U.S. sitting volleyball team win silver medals in Beijing and London before finally getting over the hump to win a gold medal over China in Rio in 2016.
When obstacles got in the way, Miller powered through to excel in two sports. When her team couldn’t find the top spot on the podium, she powered through to help deliver the gold. Now, Miller hopes to be an inspiration and encourages athletes to keep moving forward.
“I’ve had a bunch of hurdles and with every bad thing that has occurred, awesome things have come out of it. I feel like there’s a balance,” Miller said. “That’s what I live by. There’s different opportunities. There's different doors open. So always keep your eyes open.”
Relive the moment Miller and the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team brought home the gold as we look back on the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. Coverage will begin June 25th at 7p.m. ET on NBCSN.