Leaving a Legacy

Kari-2-300x199In December 1999, while home on leave from the military, Kari Miller was struck by a drunk driver, causing her to lose portions of both of her legs. A military member and former high school basketball and track athlete, she knew she wanted to stay active despite her new injuries.

“My mom’s friend introduced me to wheelchair basketball,” she says. Having played basketball her whole life, she thought it would be a great fit, but her first few attempts didn’t go as planned. “I sucked really, really bad,” she says. “I was just so weak.”

Kari continued to play, recognizing the benefits both on and off the court. “The more I played, the stronger I became,” she says.

That hard work brought her to the University of Illinois where she began playing wheelchair basketball full time. She then decided to try out for the U.S. Women’s National Team. A smaller player, she struggled to play against some of the veterans on the team, and she wasn’t selected for the team.

“It was one of those ‘what do I do next?’ moments,” she says.

One of her friends on the basketball team recommended she try sitting volleyball, but her first reaction wasn’t favorable. “My first thought was I don’t play volleyball, I play basketball. Volleyball is for girly-girls.”

After a trip to Atlanta, Kari learned the basics and decided at the last minute to try out for the U.S. National Sitting Volleyball team in 2004. She walked into the room, looked around at some of the women and thought she would be a shoe-in. Once again, she hadn’t been selected for a national team.

“I wanted to give up, but my mom was like ‘Why don’t you actually train and then see what you can do?’,” she says.

So train she did. Still playing wheelchair basketball, Kari would spend her mornings working out with the University of Illinois team and then practice sitting volleyball in the afternoons on her own. In 2006, all of her hard work paid off and she was named to the U.S. National Sitting Volleyball Team. Kari was on her way to becoming one of the world’s best defenders.

In 2008 she and her teammates earned a silver medal in Beijing, an experience she’ll never forget.

“The feeling that you get when you’re there and you know your mom is in the stands and how many people are out there cheering for you,” she says. “Nothing is like it.”

In London, she and the team came home with another silver medal and she got to experience being a veteran on the team. “It was a matter of knowing what I was getting into this time,” she says.” “That initial feeling of nervousness wasn’t there, like you could see in some of the younger girls.”

After Kari returned from London, she began working with the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, where she works daily to get some of the most severely wounded military members active through adaptive sports opportunities.

“I’m really about being able to leave a legacy. Being able to leave behind ways of getting people back to being independent.”

Kari-300x199She was with the Air Force Team at the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs earlier this month

“So many of them train so hard to get where they are, and seeing all the friendships that are made is worth it,” she says. But she likes seeing the affects of adaptive sports in the service members long after the games are over.

“When you’re injured, it’s kind of like starting over,” she says. “I’m lucky to watch people grow and get their own inner strength. You see them get stronger and gain a better understanding of who they are.”

When she’s working with the warriors, she says she gives the same advice she’d give anyone interested in starting adaptive sports.

“Try everything,” she says. “You never know what it is that’s going to give you that feeling. I thought it was going to be basketball, but I tried volleyball and ended up being very successful at it.”