It was only after a tragic accident—in which she was believed dead—that Kari Miller discovered volleyball. Before that moment, Miller had always been athletic, playing point guard and running track in high school.
“I thought it was a ‘wussie’ sport,” said Miller, 33, a native of Washington, D.C. “Playing in those little, tight shorts? I couldn’t see myself doing it.”
She’s doing it now, winning a silver medal at the 2008 Paralympics and earning a ranking as the world’s No. 1 libero in 2010. She has represented the U.S. against the world’s best in places such as China, the Netherlands and Egypt.
But how she got to those exotic locales is the real story.
After high school, Miller joined the Army and earned the rank of sergeant. On Dec. 19, 1999, she and three friends were driving back from a party when a drunk driver rammed their car from behind.
Miller, a passenger in the front seat, was badly hurt in the crash, losing both her legs—one amputated above the knee and the other below.
The driver of her car was killed. Everyone else survived without serious injury, including the drunk driver, who police estimated was traveling 80 mph.
“I remember skidding around and spinning,” Miller said. “But I don’t remember hitting the utility pole.”
Paramedics had to cut out the top half of the car to remove Miller, who was fading in and out of consciousness.
In the confusion, Miller’s mother, Mary Lanauze, a D.C. detective sergeant, was woken up by calls from a police communications officer. Lanauze was informed—erroneously—that her daughter was deceased.
“I fell to my knees, and my mom and my son collapsed,” Lanauze said. “But my sister and my best friend said, ‘Let’s get to the hospital.’ And once we got there, we were relieved.”
Miller was alive, but no one knew if she had been told she lost her legs. Even now, more than a decade later, Lanauze still gets emotional talking about what happened next.
“She had tubes in her mouth and couldn’t talk,” Lanauze said. “She asked for paper and a pen, and she wrote: Don’t be sad I lost my legs.”
For some, the story would’ve ended there. But Miller, with a big assist from her mother, would not succumb to her sorrows.
“My mother bullied me through it,” Miller said of her recovery. “When I got sad, the hospital wanted to throw pills at me. But my mother wouldn’t allow that. She told me that if I needed to cry, then cry. But you don’t need to get medicated [for depression].”
Instead, Miller’s loved ones used humor as medicine, including the time her uncle saw her in the hospital and joked that she looked like she had lost 60 pounds.
With her family’s help, Miller fought through her sadness and started playing basketball again, this time in a wheelchair. She set a goal of making it to the Paralympics.
When the 5-foot-4 Miller failed to make the U.S. basketball team —she said her size was a major impediment—a friend suggested volleyball, the sport she loathed as a youth.
“Once I sat down, and they hit a ball to me at supersonic speed, I didn’t think it was ‘wussie’ anymore,” Miller said. “I got hit in the face, and they told me there was no crying in volleyball. I got addicted quickly.”
Miller said the speed of her game is no joke.
“In standing volleyball, you have more time to react because of the distance to the ground,” Miller said. “But in sitting volleyball, the angles are flatter, and you have less time. It’s a faster pace. Every touch has to be a good one.”
Most of Miller’s touches are golden, which is why she was named the No. 1 libero at the 2010 World Championships in Edmond, Okla. She led the U.S. to a silver medal, the same honor the Americans received at the 2008 Paralymics in China.
Lora Webster, who has been on the U.S. sitting volleyball team since the program started in 2003, said you would never know by watching Miller that she is relatively new to the sport.
“What makes Kari great is her determination,” said Webster, who played high school volleyball with a prosthetic left leg and had a scholarship offer to Utah State before turning it down to help start the sitting program.
“Kari is a big ball of energy. You are always aware she is in the room. She’s a great friend and has that straight—forward East Coast personality.”
Webster, who was diagnosed with bone cancer at age 11, said there is a bond on the U.S. team that has been strengthened due to shared experiences and mutual admiration regarding the obstacles they have all had to overcome.
Miller said that sisterhood has given her “an amazing life” that connects through a simple philosophy that works on the court as well as off.
“Never give up,” Miller said. “Even if you think you can’t get to the ball, try. My one job in life is to make sure that ball does not hit the ground.”
Those who know Miller would say her contributions to society go far beyond anything she does on the volleyball court. Miller serves as a mentor to newly disabled soldiers, creating sports programs to help them flourish physically as well as mentally.
She is also on track to graduate this year with a biology degree from the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, which is where the U.S. team is based and many of its athletes live year-round.
“I’m so proud of Kari’s strength and spirit,” Lanauze said. “And I am the biggest groupie of the volleyball team. I travel all around to see them play, and if I’m not their biggest fan, I’m for sure their loudest.”
Lanauze and Miller plan to be in London for the 2012 Paralympics, but anything after that is in doubt.
“After London, I will see how my body holds up,” Miller said. “Sitting volleyball is hard because you have to use your arms like legs. It puts a lot of wear and tear on your shoulders.”
Miller’s sport—much like her life—requires courage.
No wussies allowed.
The U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team is in the Paralympics, and the men have work to do.
The Paralympics, a competition between the best physically disabled athletes in the world, are held every four years, and the next one is set for Aug. 29-Sept. 9, 2012 in London.
The American women finished second at the 2010 World Championships in Edmond, Okla., automatically qualifying for London. The U.S. men finished 10th and will next attempt to qualify at the 2011 Parapan American Games Nov. 19-27 in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Sitting volleyball is played just like the standing game except for the lowered net—which is about three feet high—and a smaller court. The players sit on the floor and use their arms to move around.
Originally published in February 2011