Being a member of the United States women’s wheelchair basketball team at the 2012 Paralympics in London was a great thrill for Desiree Miller.
Alas, returning home without a medal was a disappointment.
But with the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro just two months away, Miller and her U.S. teammates are gearing up for another run at the medals podium. And this time they are hoping to reach the top spot.
“With Team USA, we always strive for gold, no matter what competition we’re going into,” said the 28-year-old Miller, a 2005 graduate of Monroe High School. “And as we head into Rio, we’re striving toward gold.”
In the past year or so, “we’ve been playing friendly games against some of our top competition and holding our own pretty well,” added Miller, speaking by telephone from Whitewater, Wisconsin, where she lives and trains. “We’ve won some and we’ve lost some as well, and (the difference) usually comes down to certain moments in games. But this team will certainly be in contention for gold (in Rio) and I think we have a good chance for it.”
Miller was born with a rare form of spina bifida, resulting in diminished feeling and movement in her legs. She can walk short distances by wearing leg braces, but generally uses a wheelchair for longer distances.
She raced motorcycles and played golf as a younger girl, but in school her primary interests were books and music. She never thought of wheelchair basketball until a friend encouraged her to try the sport, and immediately she was hooked.
Not only that, it turned out she was pretty good. Miller ended up with a partial scholarship to play at the University of Alabama and within two years was a member of the U.S. national team. She was an alternate for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, but four years later she was a starter and a top player for the Americans at the London Games.
Because she had an important role in 2012, “I put a lot of pressure on myself … and it was actually quite stressful,” Miller admitted. “I don’t think I really soaked in the experience as much as I should have. I was just worrying about the games all the time.”
Looking back, she went on, “2012 was such a blur to me. So as I head into Rio I really want to enjoy the experience more. I want to soak in all the moments. I want to enjoy the opening and closing ceremonies, I want to enjoy being with my team, and I want to take the experience one step at a time instead of being overwhelmed by everything.”
American coach Stephanie Wheeler, a two-time U.S. Paralympian and a member of the team selection committee in 2012, remembers that Miller “was nervous (in London) and understandably so. It’s a huge stage to be on and being in her early 20s (at the time), that’s a lot of pressure on her shoulders. But Desi’s done a great job of learning from that … and she’s really dedicated herself to putting in the work for Rio so that when those moments come again, she won’t be nervous.”
On the court, Wheeler added, “Desi’s a great offensive presence for us. When we need a big basket, I think the team looks to her. She has experience at the international level, she has confidence in herself, and in those big moments she’s ready to step up and make plays.”
Over the past four years the U.S. team has added several new players, with Miller being one of the few holdovers from 2012.
Wheeler became the head coach in 2013, and since then “the evolution of this team has been phenomenal,” she said. “We have great scoring, great defenders, and we can play different styles depending on (the opponent). Also, I know it sounds like a cliché, but this team is really a family. I’ve played on national teams myself, but I’m sure I was never on a team that was this close, and a team that loves, trusts and respects each other as much as this team does.”
Put all that together, Wheeler said, “and I really think we have the potential to win a gold medal.”
Miller received an undergraduate degree in English at Alabama, and in 2014 completed a master’s degree in counseling at Wisconsin-Whitewater. She spent a year playing professionally in Germany, but has since focused on training for this year’s Paralympics, which are scheduled for Sept 7-18. She is also part of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Hopefuls Associates program, which allows U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes to work company jobs with flexible schedules that permit training and travel.
In the years since she was a girl in Monroe, Miller has enjoyed many remarkable experiences because of wheelchair basketball. Likewise, the sport has given her a new understanding of herself and her own potential.
“Growing up, I didn’t think sports would be available to me because of my disability,” she explained. “I was one of the very few people in my school with a disability. I tried living my life as normal as I could, but it was always a struggle to keep up with my able-body friends.
“But when I found wheelchair basketball, it became more than just a sport for me. It opened up a whole new world and a whole new community that I could belong to and call my own. These were people who understood what it was like to live with a disability. And for me it was also an outlet where I could physically push my body to the limit and still feel like a competitor.
“So the impact that wheelchair basketball has had on my life has been tremendous,” she said, “and it’s one that I’ve been blessed to have.”