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“My Disability Didn’t Define Me”: How Zach Miller Found His Calling In Para Snowboarding

By Alex Abrams | March 29, 2020, 12:01 a.m. (ET)

Zach Miller poses for a photo at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.


Zach Miller has always been limited by how fast he can run. His legs would get tired after 45 minutes of playing basketball, and his muscles would seize up so much he’d have to be carried to bed after a game.

All Miller wanted was to just keep up with everyone else his age. However, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was 6 months old, meaning his muscles didn’t develop as they should, and his body didn’t work like his basketball teammates.

Once the Denver native was introduced to snowboarding, though, he was free to go as fast as he wanted. He then learned about Para snowboardcross, in which physically impaired riders race against each other down a narrow, winding course.

“They were like, ‘Hey, there’s a whole sport about racing that we think you might like because you’re so obsessed with speed,’” Miller said. “And I was like ‘OK, I’ll give it a try.’”

Miller won his first race in snowboardcross, also known as boardercross, at age 11, when the only other rider in the competition fell on the snow. A decade later, Miller has emerged as one of the best in the sport despite being one of the youngest athletes on the circuit and weighing much less than many peers because of cerebral palsy.

Miller enjoyed a breakout season on the world cup circuit in 2018-19. He opened the season by reaching the medal podium for the first time ever at a snowboarding event in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and he finished the season with eight world cup medals. 

“I remember just walking away from that (Dubai competition) and all of a sudden feeling like a different caliber of athlete,” said Miller, who’ll celebrate his 21st birthday on March 10.

“At least for me, it was like a switch was flipped when you make the podium because you walk up there and you get your picture taken and the all the articles are like, ‘Here’s the best people in the world right now. Here are the people that you need to beat if you want to be the best.’”

Miller solidified his place as one of the sport’s rising stars when he earned the bronze medal in the men’s snowboardcross LL2 competition at the 2019 World Para Snowboard Championships in Pyha, Finland. Soon afterward, he was named to the 2019-20 U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding national team.

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It’s been a rapid rise.

In 2013, at age 14, Miller was invited to compete in his first world cup event in his home state of Colorado. He has since earned 11 world cup medals, and he’s trying to add weight to his 5-foot-8, 130-pound frame in the hopes of having even more success on the course.

“One of the biggest setbacks and one of the biggest challenges that I face in Para snowboarding with cerebral palsy specifically is the ability to put on muscle mass,” said Miller, who spends almost 200 days a year on the snow.

“My body doesn’t have the same kind of ability to grow its muscles as everyone else does. It’s a challenge because I’m really seeing guys who weigh 180, 220, 250-260 pounds, and I weigh 130 soaking wet.”

Miller said he has a “super competitive spirit” by nature. As a kid, he looked up to his older brother, Josh, who starred on his high school soccer team. Josh was so quick on the soccer field he earned the nickname “the Magic Man” because he could be on one side of a defender and then in an instant “disappear” and show up on the defender’s opposite side.

Miller tried keeping up with his brother in soccer, basketball and even footraces in their backyard. As much as Josh encouraged him, Miller found himself getting tired while playing sports.

When Miller was 6, he was getting treatment at a children’s hospital on an almost weekly basis because of constant health issues as a result of cerebral palsy. His doctors felt he was pushing himself too hard in physical therapy and he needed another outlet to channel his energy. 

It was the wintertime, so the doctors suggested Miller board a bus along with other children dealing with health issues and learn to ski in Winter Park, Colorado. Miller went to the top of a ski slope and made a couple of turns on a pair of skis. He was immediately hooked, and as soon as he got home, he asked his mother when he could go skiing again.

“I just kind of felt like I belonged on a mountain after that,” Miller said.

Two years later, Miller started snowboarding. It was a life-changing experience. He could finally satisfy his need for speed.

“If I wanted to point my board and straight-line it, there was nothing stopping me,” Miller said. “It gave me this new kind of sense of freedom where, all of a sudden, my disability didn’t define me. It had nothing to do with snowboarding, and I can finally just let that seed bug do its thing. I could just start doing everything I wanted to do on a snowboard.”

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.