Zach Miller poses at a Team USA Beijing 2022 Paralympic shoot on Sept. 12, 2021 in Irvine, Calif.
During the 2018-19 world cup season, the podium became almost like a second home to Para snowboarder Zach Miller.
Miller took home eight medals that season, and won bronze in the men’s snowboardcross LL2 category at the 2019 World Para Snowboard World Championships in Finland.
Then came COVID-19, followed by a shortened 2020-21 season in which Miller did not compete in world cup races. He didn’t visit the podium again until late last month, when he won gold and bronze in men’s LL2 in Landgraaf, Netherlands, where the 2021-22 season began.
With the chaos and uncertainty surrounding the last year and a half, the two wins in Landgraaf were especially gratifying for Miller, who’s hoping to qualify for his first Paralympic Winter Games.
“I’ve been waiting to get back into that feeling of competition again,” said Miller, who is one of the younger members of the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team at 22. “It just felt like a lot of sitting around twiddling our thumbs. To finally start what looks to be a very promising year of competition with two podiums, one being a win, is just through the roof.”
Like most athletes, Miller felt out of sorts during the shutdown. But he’s no stranger to adversity since being diagnosed with cerebral palsy at six months old. The condition affects his ability to develop muscle mass and gain weight. But he’s accustomed to competing against bigger, stronger athletes from trying to keep up with his older brother Josh.
“One of the reasons snowboarding came so easily to me and why I really fell in love with it right off the bat is because growing up with an older brother who’s fully able-bodied, star of his high school soccer team … he was someone I chased after constantly,” Miller recalled. “So when snowboarding came around, it was a new opportunity for me to chase after bigger dudes.”
Doctors immediately noticed Miller’s competitiveness during physical therapy as a child. They recommended the Denver native learn to ski in Winter Park and he took to the sport right away. But while skiing with the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), he happened to notice a group of snowboarders nearby. Miller thought it looked fun and wanted to give it a try. The experience was both challenging and exhilarating.
“I picked up skiing quickly,” Miller explained. “Snowboarding all of a sudden was so much harder because (it) requires a little bit more balance. Having CP, balance is not one of my strong suits. But situations like that for me are so much more intriguing.”
Miller won his first snowboardcross race at age 11. A teammate of his was the only other rider competing, and was ahead before he suddenly fell in the snow. Miller remembers almost stopping to check on him.
“He saw me getting ready to stop and he was like, ‘No, keep going. I’m fine,’” Miller recalled. “I kept going and crossed the finish line and everybody was cheering for me.”
Miller’s parents, Mike and T.R. Miller, believed strongly in getting a good education, but were also supportive of his athletic goals. He also met two other people who have had a profound impact on his success. Dan Gale and his wife, Paralympic medalist Amy Purdy, run Adaptive Action Sports, a nonprofit focused on involving adaptive athletes in snowboarding and skateboarding. The couple took him under their wing, and Gale currently serves as Miller’s development coach. Miller has even stayed at their home in Colorado while training.
“I’ve got a great relationship with Zach,” Gale said. “He’s just a fantastic kid and he’s got so much potential. I really wish the best for him.”
Miller more than makes up for his slight 130-pound frame with speed and reaction time. He’s a quick starter out of the gate and prides himself in being technically sound on the course.
“When courses come along where you need to be precise and lace the lines together and string together that perfect run, I’m your guy,” Miller said. “My strategy is if you’re going to win, you have to pass me first.”
With Beijing just a few months away, Miller is focused on staying consistent with training and healthy nutrition. He has no intention of changing the routine that has gotten him to this point.
“Just because this year is the big one does not mean it’s going to change anything about my riding or about the way I’m going to take things on,” he explained. “We have a saying that you train how you race or you race how you train. Just because times are up and points are up for grabs and you’re racing for medals doesn’t mean you’re going to be racing any different.”
In the back of his mind, Miller knows there will come a day when his CP may force him to stop competing sooner rather than later. But as with everything else, he takes each day in stride.
“I know there’s going to come a time where I’ll have to step out of competition, but that doesn’t mean I have to leave,” he said. “I am super thankful for the people that have built this sport, the people that deal with the politics and organize the committees. I think in the future I would love to be one of those people.”