MONROE — Like all the American athletes headed to London this summer, Desiree Miller is excited to wear a uniform of red, white and blue. And the thought of being on a podium with a gold medal around her neck, well, it’s enough to bring her to tears.
Be assured, Miller and her fellow U.S. Paralympians are very bit as proud, patriotic and determined as their U.S. Olympic counterparts.
“When I think about winning a gold medal and hearing the national anthem, it brings a lot of emotions for me,” said the 24-year-old Miller, a 2005 graduate of Monroe High School. “To have USA on my chest and to be representing my country in all aspects of that tournament, it makes me very proud to think about that.”
Miller is a starter and top scorer for the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team. The 2012 Paralympics begin in late August, two weeks after this summer’s Olympics, and will use many of the same venues, meaning Miller and her teammates will compete in the same arena as the U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic basketball teams.
“I’ve put a lot of time and effort into being the best I can be for this team, and now I want a gold medal in the Paralympics,” Miller said. “That’s been my goal ever since I found out about wheelchair basketball and found out there was a Paralympics.”
Miller was born with a rare form of spina bifada, which left her with limited feeling and movement in her legs. Aided by leg braces, she can walk short distances with a slow, uneven stride, but a wheelchair is helpful for longer distances, such as shopping malls or her college campus.
Unlike people who end up in wheelchairs because of injuries, “I was born with this, so I’ve never known anything different,” she said. Surgeries have made her condition more tolerable, “but it’s nothing that can be cured.”
Miller dabbled in sports as a younger girl, racing motorcycles and playing a little golf, “but I never found a sport that I really enjoyed,” she said. “I was more of a book and music person.”
She knew almost nothing about wheelchair sports until a disabled friend talked to her about wheelchair basketball. “She finally convinced me to come to a practice in Seattle,” Miller said. “And I loved it instantly.”
She also enjoyed meeting “a wide range of people like me, including some that had less function than I had. It was amazing to me. It was like finding a community of my own and finding a sport I could participate in.”
To her surprise, she had a real knack for the game. Within six months she had a partial scholarship offer to play wheelchair basketball at the University of Alabama, which is one of the few schools in the country to offer the sport as an ambitious club program. Two years later, she was a member of the U.S. women’s national team headed to the Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the Americans won the gold medal.
Miller was an alternate on the U.S. team for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, but she competed at the 2010 World Championships in Birmingham, England, and the 2011 Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, earning two more gold medals.
Several top U.S. players retired after the 2010 World Championships, and Miller has since emerged as one of the team’s top players. In games of four 10-minute quarters, she usually plays 30-40 minutes and is often one of the leading scorers
For a disabled athlete, the Paralympics are “as big as it gets,” Miller said. “It’s what we’re always striving for as wheelchair basketball players. Putting on a USA uniform and playing for your country is the highest achievement you can get, and for me it’s a honor.”
Miller received an undergraduate degree in English from Alabama and is now pursuing a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where she plays on the school’s women’s wheelchair basketball team (as a club sport, there are no restrictions on years of eligibility).
Her career goal is to work with newly injured people because, as she explained, “that’s kind of my world, so I know what it’s all about.”
But in the meantime, she eagerly awaits next month’s trip to London.
“If you’d told me when I was starting my senior year at Monroe High School that I’d be representing Team USA at the London Paralympics, I never would’ve believed you,” she said. “And when I think about how much work it took to get there and how it’s all finally paid off, (the Paralympics) will be a culmination of all that.”