Zach Miller competes in banked slalom in Beijing. (Photo: Mark Reis)
Zach Miller wasn’t sure what to expect before departing for the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. He’d heard all about how different things would be with the COVID-19 restrictions and the virtual bubble.
But the 23-year-old native of Silverthorne, Colorado, wasn’t thinking much about that when he received word he had made the final roster of the U.S. Para snowboard team.
“The email came, I opened it up and started reading,” Miller recalled. “Honestly, the more I read it, the more I felt I could relax. A lot of these people worked for four years to get there. For me, it’s been over 10.”
When the excitement died down, Miller was prepared for lockdown. But when he arrived in Beijing, he discovered conditions weren’t as bad as he had feared.
“They had the whole thing pretty much under control,” he said. “I never felt worried about COVID. We were doing testing every day. The volunteers were so nice and welcoming. It was actually relaxing almost.”
Miller spent a great deal of his downtime walking around the village, taking in the fresh air and playing ping-pong at the general service center. One of his best memories from the trip was riding the bullet train to opening and closing ceremonies.
“I didn’t know there was going to be a bullet train,” Miller said. “I’d never ridden one before. That was a cool experience.”
Miller, who won gold in banked slalom at the world championships in January in Lillehammer, Norway, was confident he could make the podium in Beijing, particularly since it was his best event. However, he ended up placing 15th in the banked slalom and finished 11th in snowboardcross. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at six months old, Miller found the courses were made for bigger, more muscular riders than himself.
“Going into the Games, I had high expectations, maybe not as much for boardercross but definitely for banked slalom,” he said. “It slowly became this realization that I was far too small to be competitive. The courses were long and flat, and they favored the guys with weight.”
Another challenge was the inconsistent snow conditions brought about by warmer weather.
“Our competition days were hot, not ideal for racing,” Miller said. “Every time you took a run on the course, you’d come back around, you’d get the info from the coaches. But you’d just know in the back of your head that it was going to be a completely different course since the last time you’d been on it.”
Miller initially thought he would be a bundle of nerves before competitions, with Beijing being his Paralympic debut. He was surprised to discover he was relatively calm until just before the first event.
“I didn’t have as many nerves as I thought I would,” he said. “When my first heat started in boardercross, that was when I think I felt it the most. All I heard was, ‘This is it, this one run you’ve been training for.’ All of a sudden, it hit me that I’d been training for over a decade for this one moment.”
Adaptive Action Sports has played a crucial role in Miller’s success over the years. He has a close relationship with its founders, Daniel Gale and Amy Purdy, and has learned a lot from them about becoming a Paralympian.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Dan and Amy is that it’s about the people who are alongside you,” Miller said. “We do snowboarding because we love it. We compete because we want to win. That’s why we train and why we work so hard. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be here if I was just chasing after a medal. The whole reason I’ve been in snowboarding for so long is because of the connections I’ve made and the relationships I have.”
Miller, who competes in the men’s LL-2 class, also credits two-time Paralympic medalist Noah Elliott for mentoring him before and during the Games. The two roomed together during the world championships and predicted they would both be world champions in banked slalom, which came true as Elliott won in LL-1. Elliott has also given Miller advice on his riding style and overcoming courses not built for smaller athletes.
“To have someone who is really like myself but in the LL-1 category, that’s huge,” Miller said. “When we got to the Games, it was a lot of leaning on each other for support. Even when the disappointment came, it was still nice to have someone at the end of the day who was there for me.”
Miller plans to go to Hawaii and surf this summer before getting back to training for next season. He wants to put on more weight and intends to spend more time at the gym and in the kitchen to prepare foods that will help him bulk up.
He’d also like to work toward coaching other snowboarders, something he had an opportunity to do during the national championships when he coached Abby Benser. The two met during an IPC Nor-Am event in Sun Valley, Idaho, and became friends. Benser asked Miller if he would coach her during nationals, and he agreed.
“I coached her for the week and actually did pretty well with it,” said Miller, who has a Level 100 coaching certification. “I was able to give her a couple of callouts that helped her in races. “One of my tips ended up helping her win the small final. It totally lit a fire under me. I could really do something with that.”