STANDING TALL - After a drunk driver took her legs, this Army veteran turned her ordeal into Olympic glory

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Kari Miller lost both her legs Dec. 19, 1999, when a drunk driver, speeding at 80 mph, smashed into the car in which she was a passenger. A 22-year-old Army sergeant at the time, a lot of things changed for her after that day. For instance? "I'm taller now," she said. Taller? "Yes, taller," she repeated defiantly. "I was 5'4 then; I'm 5'7 now," she said, breaking into a grin and pointing at her prosthetic legs. But these days Miller stands tallest when she sits down. She is a two-time Paralympic silver medalist in women's sitting volleyball, garnering her first in Beijing in 2008 and winning her second at the London Games Sept. 7. She is a giant in the sport, being named the world's best female libero -- or defensive specialist -- in the 2012 Paralympics.

Torch: You are a Paralympic sensation, becoming the planet's best at what you do; while in the Army you served across the globe in Bosnia, Germany and Korea as a transportation management coordinator; and you graduated from college while playing wheelchair basketball for the University of Illinois. What do you consider your best achievement?

Miller: The best thing I do is mentor warriors wounded in combat or other injured or ill veterans through the Paralympic military sports program. A lot of them are young, angry and depressed about their situation. Then they see me, talk to me and discover life's not over. I give them hope. I help them discover how sports cannot only help them physically, but mentally as well. Because after you've been severely injured, every little thing you do is a win. Whether it was a drunk driver or an enemy grenade, they took our legs, not our lives.

Torch: What is your first memory of the drunk driver crashing into you?

Miller: He hit us hard from behind ... so violently hard. I hear this horrible screeching sound of metal on metal. Our car starts spinning and spinning, and I remember thinking, "Oh, God, is it ever going to stop?" And then everything went black.

Torch: The car you were in left the road and slammed into a telephone pole, and you were knocked unconscious. What do you recall when you came to?

Miller: I look around and see Petey (Peter Dziwornooh, 25) -- the driver. I'm in the front seat next to him, and I'm like "Wake up! Wake up!" But he's out cold. (He did not survive the crash). Then I start looking at myself to see if I'm all in one piece. I'm thinking I'm OK. But I'm trapped, so I start screaming for help.

Torch: Were you feeling any pain?

Miller: No. Not really any pain, because I'm in shock. But the wreckage is squishing down on me -- like someone is sitting on my ribcage. I can hardly breathe ... I feel like I'm suffocating. I'm freaking out and start telling myself to relax and just go to sleep. But when I start to go unconscious, I see flashes of my mom and my grandma, and random memories pop up. My life is passing before my eyes. That scares me, so I fight it.

Torch: You asked to have your legs cut off. Why?

Miller: I'm still in the car. By this time they had cut the roof off, and a fireman is lying on top of the vehicle. I look straight up into his eyes. I'm like, "Hey, can you get me out of here?" He says, "Well, we're trying ... you're wrapped around a telephone pole." I tell him to just cut it down, but he says they can't. Then I joke, "You mean that telephone pole is worth more than me?" He laughs a little bit. Then this calmness just comes over me. It's weird because I'm trapped, I'm crushed, and it's getting harder and harder to breathe, but I have this moment of clarity. I look at him seriously, and I tell him, "Hey, if you have to cut my legs off to get me out of here, do it. I'll forgive you." He smiles at me and gives me a hug. Then he sticks a needle in me, and I drift off to sleep.

Torch: How badly were you injured?

Miller: Severely. Lots of crush injuries. Collapsed lung, hole in my intestine, multiple fractures. I had breaks in the ulna and radial of my left arm. A broken finger. My pelvis was crushed. Both femurs in my legs were broken. And, of course, I had my legs amputated -- my right one below the knee and my left one above.

Torch: Describe seeing your mom for the first time after the accident.

Miller: I wake up in the intensive care unit laying on a gurney with a tube down my throat, and I'm happy. I'm alive! Whew! Even though it's dark, I can see my mother. She looks so scared ... so worried. That frightens me. I'm not used to seeing my mom like that. She's a strong woman -- a Washington D.C. homicide detective. I can't speak because of the tube down my throat, so the nurse gives me some paper and a pencil. My mom is so hesitant to speak but finally asks me if I know what has happened. I tell her yes, I had been in a car wreck. Then she asks, "Yeah, but do you know everything that happened?" And I write, "Yeah, I lost my legs. ... But at least now I can be as tall as I want to be." Then she smiles, and you can just see all her fear melt away. She knew if I still had my sense of humor, I was going to be OK. We could work on everything else.

Torch: How much did your good sense of humor help in the recovery process?

Miller: It was huge. My family is really cool that way. My uncle came to see me, and he knows I love gummy bears. So he tells me if I hurry up and get better, he will get me some. Then he says, "Heck, I'll give you one right now. Want me to stick one down your tube." Down my breathing tube! I'm like, "Get this man out of here; he's trying to kill me!" But it's good to be able to laugh. It helps you mentally. You don't feel so sorry for yourself.

Torch: What was the toughest part of recovery?

Miller: Learning to walk again. With one above-the-knee amputation and one below, I had to learn to walk two different ways with one body. The right leg did one thing, the left another -- very frustrating.

Torch: In addition to your sense of humor and family what else did you draw from during your recovery?

Miller: Sports. Sports have like a magical healing power. I've been around sports all my life, and played basketball and ran track competitively when I was in high school.

Torch: So how is it, then, that you ended up playing volleyball?

Miller: The funny thing is I hated volleyball. I couldn't stand those little spandex booty shorts they wear with everything hanging out. So the first thing I tried was wheelchair basketball -- my mom, who coached me when I was younger, helped introduce me to that. I ended up playing wheelchair basketball at the University of Illinois. I got good enough at that to try out for the U.S. Paralympic wheelchair basketball team in 2004. But I didn't make the team. That's when a teammate suggested I try sitting volleyball. I was upset, but decided I'd go for it.

Torch: When did you fall in love with volleyball?

Miller: I was at a sitting volleyball camp, and the coach was explaining some things to me. He told me if the ball goes above your head, use your hands. If it comes down low, use your forearms. Seemed simple enough. So then there's this big chick -- one of her hands was like two of mine -- and it's her turn to serve the ball. She bounces it, tosses it in the air, reaches back and swings directly at me. The ball has fire coming out the back of it, and it's headed right for my face. First I'm thinking, "Use your forearms! ... no use your hands!" Then, I'm like, "Abort! Abort!" And I jump out of the way and scream. My coach says, "Kari, there's no screaming in volleyball." But I barely hear him because my adrenalin is pumping and I'm excited. For some reason, that element of danger got my competitive juices flowing. I thought, "This is awesome!" The rest is history.

Torch: At age 35 and two silver medals on the biggest sports stage, was this your last Paralympics?

Miller: We'll see. I still love to compete, but I might move into coaching. And I want to get my doctorate's degree in physical therapy.

Torch: What makes you think you'll enjoy coaching?

Miller: Well, I've been around sports all my life and can't imagine my life without them. Serving as a mentor to wounded warriors and coaching them has been probably the most meaningful thing I have done. As a matter of fact, the Army just selected me to be the coach for their next Warrior Games team. I'm really excited about it.

Torch: You've come a long way. But are you still angry at the drunk driver who cost you your legs and took your friend, Petey's, life?

Miller: No, I'm not angry at him. He was a young guy who made a bad mistake and is paying the price (prison time). He wasn't some repeat offender; he wasn't malicious. Truthfully, back in the day ... I've been guilty of drinking and driving. I was just lucky that I never did anything that caused someone else harm. I still have a great life. I have my family. I have my friends. ... I have volleyball.

Torch: And to others who would drink and drive?

Miller: Don't do it. It's not worth it. Turns out the drunk driver who hit us knew Petey. They were friends. I would rather be on my side of this than his. I couldn't live with the guilt.