Waking up in a Washington hospital bed, Kari Miller didn’t need to be told the outcome of the trauma she had just endured. She didn’t have to look down to realize she no longer had legs. Her gut told her the news she didn’t want to — couldn’t — utter.
Miller had little recollection of the car crash she and three of her friends experienced in the wee hours of that December 1999 morning. But when Miller’s mother crouched down beside her daughter’s bed to ask her if she knew what had happened, Miller knew exactly how to respond.
With a collapsed lung and breathing tube in place, Miller couldn’t speak. So instead, she scribbled down a note to let those around her know she was OK.
“Yes, I know I lost both my legs,” Miller said. “But at least now I can be as tall as I want to be.’”
They laughed. The road to recovery facing the bedridden Miller that day was long. Tears followed that laughter as she spent the next six months relearning to walk and adjusting to a new way of life. In those initial moments, she wondered if her days of normalcy were over.
Unbeknownst to Miller, a journey that would twice take her to the Paralympics was just beginning.
Mary Lanauze gave birth to Kari when she was just 15 years old. So the mother and daughter, who have an almost sister-like relationship, grew up together.
When Kari was a toddler, Lanauze didn’t have a car or a babysitter. So if Lanauze wanted to play basketball, she and her “walking buddy” would go together to the nearest court. It seemed only fitting that sports, particularly basketball, would be a huge part of Miller’s life.
Along with her lifelong love of athletics, Miller valued her education. When it came time for her to graduate from D.C.’s Cardozo High School, a counselor asked her what she intended to do with her life. Knowing she didn’t have the resources to pay for college, Miller began to think of alternatives.
“I realized that my mom didn’t have any real money or anything, so I was like, ‘OK, I know I need to go to college. So how do I do that?” Miller said. “And the military was my answer.”
Miller enrolled in a delayed-entry program with the Army during her senior year of high school, during which she participated in drills and learned about the military as she finished earning her diploma. Immediately after graduation in 1995, she began basic training.
Miller worked as a transportation management coordinator for the Army, a job that had her planning how units and equipment moved overseas. She was primarily stationed in Maryland, but she spent time in Korea, Bosnia and Europe during her nine years of service.
Desiring a career in the military, Miller took classes at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, working toward enough credits to be eligible for officer candidate school.
She finally reached the required number in December 1999. For Miller, a celebration was in order.
Penny with a hole in it
Most of what Miller recalls from the crash that took her legs is what people have told her. But vaguely, she recounts a single plea made to her rescuer.
After an evening of celebrating her accomplishments, Miller and three friends ate at an IHOP in the D.C. area then departed for home. On the way, a drunk driver traveling 80 mph rear-ended Miller’s vehicle, sending it into a pole. The drunk driver fled the scene. The driver of Miller’s car died on impact.
Miller woke up to see the night sky above her, the top of the car having been cut off. Still trapped on the passenger side, she couldn’t move.
“I felt like something was squishing me,” Miller said. “I couldn’t breathe. It felt like it was getting dire to me. I said, ‘I don’t care what you need to do, if you need to cut my legs off, whatever. I’ll forgive you. Just get me out.’
“Little did I know he would actually do it.’”
Lanauze, then a detective with the third district of the D.C. Police Department, woke up in the middle of the night to phone messages from the hospital. Confused and panicked, she called Kari, but got no response.
Finally, a co-worker called Lanauze, informing her that her daughter had been killed in a crash. She sped off to the hospital. Everything about that night is a blur, Lanauze concedes. But she vividly recalls the sense of relief she felt when she arrived to learn the truth.
“I get to the hospital and she didn’t die,” Lanauze said. “So from that point on, it was gravy.”
Miller was back at work less than two months after the accident, but recovery was an ongoing task.
Because one leg was amputated below the knee and the other above it, learning to use prosthetics was more difficult. When Miller started to walk, she often would fall.
Usually happy-go-lucky, Miller put on a brave face for the people around her. But when she was alone in the days following the crash, Miller couldn’t escape the sadness. She turned to her mother for strength.
“[She told me,] ‘You need to go through all that you feel,’” Miller said. “‘If you need to be sad, be sad. If you need to be angry, be angry. If you need to cry, cry.”
So one day Miller, who lived alone in an apartment, shut off her phone. She turned on the radio and listened to Dionne Farris sing about being hopeless, like a penny with a hole in it.
And she cried. She cried for the high heels she’d never again wear; her own legs, on which she’d never again walk.
The best medicine
It was like a switch was flipped inside her daughter, Lanauze said.
Miller wasn’t even out of the National Rehabilitation Hospital before the idea of adaptive sports was first mentioned to her. While receiving treatment there, Miller was introduced to someone who played wheelchair basketball.
She had spent her whole life playing the sport, so she decided to give it a try. The return to normalcy made Miller’s spirits soar.
“Her ‘Woe is me’? I haven’t heard that since,” Lanauze said. “I mean, she just walks around. She wants to go to the club. She goes horseback riding. She goes to the beach.”
Miller started playing wheelchair basketball for the University of Illinois in 2004 and was even invited to try out for the U.S. national team. When she didn’t make it, a teammate asked her if she had ever considered playing sitting volleyball.
“I was like, ‘First of all, in volleyball they wear the booty shorts. That is not happening,’” said a laughing Miller. “‘I’m a very girly girl, but I’m not going to wear booty shorts.’”
Unconvinced, she reluctantly agreed to give the new sport a chance. Before long, she was hooked.
The rules are similar to traditional volleyball, but the net is only about 3.5 feet high (compared to 7 feet, 4 inches), the court is smaller, and players must have at least one buttock on the floor when contacting the ball.
Miller had never played volleyball. But after more than a year of preparation and one failed attempt to make the U.S. team, she finally was selected in 2006. That same year, she competed in the world championships in The Netherlands. As the libero, a defensive specialist, Miller helped lead the U.S. sitting volleyball team to a fifth-place finish.
“You know when you’re in something but it’s like a dream? It’s like, ‘What am I doing here? Am I going to wake up?’” Miller said. “It was crazy because you never expect to be doing something like that in your life.”
Two years later, Lanauze watched as the daughter she witnessed fall time and time again on her new legs stand firmly atop the podium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics to receive a silver medal alongside her U.S. teammates.
Lanauze’s words drip with pride as she raves about her daughter’s resiliency. Charlie Huebner, chief of the Paralympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee, gets those same feelings anytime he’s in Miller’s presence.
“Her life changed pretty significantly, but you look at her today, she’s educated, she’s employed, she’s representing her country again,” Huebner said. “She’s just an incredible role model, not just for injured military or disabled veterans, but for every American.”
A new purpose
The Paralympic Games began in London in 1948 as an avenue for disabled World War II veterans to compete in sports and maintain a physically active lifestyle. On Wednesday, the opening ceremonies will be held in London as the 2012 Games return to their birthplace.
Miller, who was ranked the No. 1 libero in 2010, will be one of 20 veterans competing in the 2012 Paralympic Games, and is one of eight returning sitting volleyball players from the 2008 silver-medalist squad.
Since making the U.S. team in 2006, Miller has lived in Edmond, Okla., where she takes classes at Central Oklahoma and trains with her teammates.
It’s been almost 13 years since the accident that forever changed her life. She now has to do some things differently, but what she is able to do has barely changed.
“It’s not that you can’t, it’s just figuring out how to do it,” Miller said. “I go rock climbing. I run. I have to do it a different way, but you just figure out the way and do it. There should be no reason why you shouldn’t.”
Miller, now 35, has been featured prominently in a TV commercial for the Paralympics. She is determined not to settle for silver this go-around. She and the rest of her teammates will start their journey to the podium when they play their first match Friday against China.
Hardware isn’t the only thing on Miller’s mind. An ambassador for the U.S. Paralympic Military and Veteran Program, Miller works with veterans, who, like herself, use sports to overcome trauma. Miller doesn’t quite understand why she was in an accident that day, or why she was spared when another was not.
“It is what it is,” Miller said. “You just have to accept that, you know, maybe God wanted me to do something else.”
She doesn’t, and never will, have those kinds of answers. But in representing her country in more ways than one, Miller found her own solution.