Joe Pleban competes in Italy. (Photo: Alessandro Scarpa)
Zach Miller found parents in Para snowboarding.
His “parents’” names are Daniel Gale and Amy Purdy.
“They've always been my mountain family,” Miller said. “They kind of gifted me the spirit of snowboarding.”
While Gale and Purdy may not be Miller’s biological parents, Miller considers them family in sport and life.
“My parents gave me my work ethic, and (Gale and Purdy) gave me my determination,” he said.
Now seeking to make his first U.S. Paralympic Team, Miller got into Para snowboarding at a young age. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP) at around six months old, and he would pay frequent visits to a children’s hospital. He started having complications with CP when he hit growth spurts at the ages of 5, 6 and 7.
Miller underwent physical therapy as a form of treatment, and the doctors noticed he had a “very competitive spirit” in his sessions. He would ask week after week if he was stronger than the week prior.
“We need to find some outlet for this kid just to be competitive,” Miller recalled them saying.
He joined a group from the hospital on a trip to the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) in Winter Park, Colorado. The NSCD is a non-profit that helps persons with disabilities get involved in winter and summer sports. Miller was there to learn skiing, but a pack of snowboarders caught his eye.
“They were ripping down (the slope), carving turns,” he said. “They're doing their own thing, and there's hooting and hollering. I looked over at my instructor, and I was like, ‘OK, I got to try that. That looks so much more fun than skiing.’”
Miller gave it a shot, and the rest is history. Eventually, he met Gale at the Ski Spectacular, a weeklong series of competitions in Breckenridge, Colorado, and Miller was recommended to check out Gale’s group of snowboarders at the non-profit Adaptive Action Sport (ADACS) near Copper Mountain, Colorado. Copper Mountain is nearly 30 miles north of Breckinridge.
Gale introduced Miller to Purdy the next week. She offered to take a few laps on the snow with him.
“I was like, what? I get to catch a couple laps with Amy Purdy?” Miller recalled. “I texted my mom, and was like, ‘Do you know who Amy Purdy is?’ She was like, ‘No, not yet.’‘Oh man, you're about to know a lot about her. She's a big deal.’”
Purdy also gave Miller one of her older snowboards, “a serious upgrade” from the board he had been using. He needed no more convincing, if any at all, to train with Gale’s team.
Miller said this decision helped him take his talent to another level: He snowboarded alongside older athletes; he found a community and he traveled the world cup circuit with his newfound friends.
He said he enjoyed interacting with athletes and coaches who shared similar experiences and goals as his.
“Dan has been a big mentor to me, not only being a coach to me on the hill, but being a mentor to me off the snow, as well,” Miller said. “He and Amy really helped me further develop my public speaking skills. They, for a few years, actually gave me a place to stay while I was there in the winters so that I would have a place that was just easily accessible to get to the mountains within 30 minutes every day. They've always been there for me.”
Miller trains with Joe Pleban, another hopeful to make his first Paralympic Games, at the ADACS. Pleban lives around two blocks from Purdy and Gale.
Pleban said he is grateful to have other amputees, like Purdy, in his corner.
“I lived in Virginia when I got my amputation,” he said. “I didn't really have as much of a big support group out there. On a daily basis, I was trying to figure stuff out on my own. It was a constant game of, ‘Am I doing this right? Is this normal?’”
Miller and Pleban found a sense of normalcy and certainty in Para snowboarding. As they chase their first Paralympic Games, there is no shortage of fun and hard work.
“I could have snowboarded with anyone else and gotten good at snowboarding, but I don't think I would have had nearly as much fun and love for the sport if it wasn't for Dan and Amy,” Miller said. “I never got tired of (snowboarding). They figured out how to make the sport fun and a gift.