September 14, 2012By Audrey Mangan, fasterskiier.com
The day Joan Miller took to the starting line of the 7.5 k at the Albertville Olympics, history was being made. The year was 1992, and it was the first year women’s biathlon was being included in the Games. Despite training on the national biathlon team for seven years, this was the first time Miller (then Smith) and every other female biathlete in the world had been given the chance to compete on the world’s biggest athletic stage.
“They used to tell me when I was younger, ‘Some day you’ll go to the Olympics,’” Miller told the New York Times at the ‘92 trials. “Now I can say it.”
It’s at once a familiar and completely foreign concept: there was a time as recently as the 90s when women didn’t have every opportunity men did to compete at the Olympics. I was four years old in 1992, only a few years away from my first soccer team and indoctrination into the Title IX notion that anything boys could do girls could do, too. And yet today’s female ski jumpers know exactly what exclusion feels like, having only just been granted a spot on the Olympic playbill for 2014.
Speaking over the phone from her home in Vermont nearly twenty years later, Miller recalled the emotion of finally making it to the Olympic starting line after dedicating her life to biathlon. It was bittersweet, as many of her teammates had aged out of the sport before the opportunity finally came.
“To see ’88 slip by for them was really — they just knew realistically, how can they hang on from ’88 to ’92 and try to make it? And here they’d been hoping that ’88 would be the year for them,” Miller said.
As the youngest woman on the team for many years, Miller had been the team protégé. She was not yet out of high school when she was first named to the U.S. biathlon team and competed against athletes who’d been involved in the sport for longer than she’d even been on skis.
“My learning curve was extremely fast because I was surrounded by women who’d been doing it for so long,” Miller said. “You learn from other people’s mistakes and successes, and you grow from that… You grow up fast.”
And so as a 24-year-old Miller stood waiting to begin her first Olympic race, she was mindful of both the task in front of her and of the friends and teammates who’d helped her get there.
“To make it in ’92, it was pretty incredible to think, ‘OK I’ve finally made it;’ knowing a lot of that group that had hung on and wasn’t able to make it. They set the foundation — it was huge,” she said.
It is gratifying to hear an Olympian talk about her inspiration with such humility. Perhaps this is because I, in turn, had idolized Miller growing up. We graduated from the same small high school in upstate New York; had both learned to ski in the same park. Though our time in Honeoye Falls was separated by two decades, Miller was my hero because of this shared origin — with it, she’d become an Olympian.
I’d almost forgotten what that youthful idolization felt like, but it came right back when I dialed Miller’s phone number last fall. I’d met her on the ski trails once in grade school; had shaken her hand, taken a photo. Olympians inhabit a unique place in the imaginations of the young; there is nothing nobler in the eyes of a nine-year-old than complete dedication to the pursuit of athletic glory for flag and country.
My expectations for our conversation now were perhaps impossibly high. I began, nervously, with a confession:
“I don’t know if I mentioned this earlier, but I did a report on you for school in fourth grade.”
Miller laughed. “They pay you in fourth grade?”
Even through the phone, Miller’s warmth and humor was evident. I was lucky, I knew; here I was speaking to a childhood hero and she was every bit as charming as I’d always imagined.
* * *
Our conversation began with a look back at her career. Our hometown connection was cool, but Miller’s significance lies in the groundbreaking results she produced for U.S. biathlon. In her 1992 Olympic debut, she filled the first line in the womens’ record books with a 21st-place in the 7.5 k. Two years later in Lillehammer she finished 24th in the sprint and 14th in the 15 k — the best result at the time for an American biathlete, man or woman, at the Olympics, ever.
That feat alone is impressive, but the more remarkable thing about that 15 k is how close it came to landing Miller on the medal stand. Her splits halfway through the race had her hanging with the leaders. When she skied past her coach, Walter Pichler, and into the shooting range he deliberately didn’t give her this information so as not to jinx what might be the race of her life.
“He didn’t want me to mentally not be able to handle that, he knew what to say to me to keep it so I wouldn’t get hyped up,” Miller remembers. But she could tell by the way her brother was cheering that she was having a good one.
“I was racing so hard, feeling so good and pretty much hitting my peak. I was pushing the envelope,” Miller said. “If I’d taken five more seconds coming into the range…”
Five more seconds and who knows? In the middle of a race it’s impossible to tell which five seconds will end up making all the difference. Miller came into the range for the standing position and on one shot pulled ever so slightly on her rifle as she pulled the trigger. When the bullet reached the targets, it split in two; some of it hit the target, and some did not.
“When it hits those rims, it can literally split the bullet in half… It’s called a split bullet, and it happens quite a bit,” Miller said. “Lots of the time you just follow through to the next target; you think it hits, it feels good.”
Though Miller thought she’d hit the target, the judges reviewed the race video and determined it to be a miss. The taped delayed broadcast of the race that played in the U.S that evening claimed a malfunctioning target had cost Miller a medal — this was the story I vaguely recalled — but Miller dismissed it.
“It’s me that missed the shot,” she said matter-of-factly.
But the story was half right. She missed three targets in all, and one more successful shot would have gotten her silver.
Though it could have been so much more, the performance was still the best of Miller’s career. And as any biathlete will tell you, it’s not enough to have a good day on skis alone. The targets are there for a reason; skiing and shooting have to come together at the same time.
“The two disciplines are two opposites,” Miller said. “To perform well in both at the same time, that’s the art of the sport.”
She doesn’t speak as if she still replays those moments in her head. To this day, fourteenth place remains the best-ever American women’s finish at the Olympics. Miller occasionally talks about this when she touches base with the current team.
“We joke about it,” she said. “‘You gotta bust this record, ‘cause it’s been standing too long!’”
As if in answer, Susan Dunklee set an American record of her own this winter with an historic fifth-place finish at world championships in Ruhpolding, Germany. Sochi is seventeen short months away.
* * *
Just as there’s more to a career than the Olympics, there’s more to Miller than biathlon. She continued competing internationally through 1998, but was sidelined by the flu during the Nagano trials that year. Soon afterwards she moved to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska with her husband, Allan, to finish her degree in recreation education and start raising a family.
She remained involved in biathlon as a coach for area elementary and middle school students, and led the effort to set up a local biathlon venue and club from scratch. Miller attempted to model the Kenai Peninsula Biathlon Club after the relaxed environment in which she herself first learned how to shoot and ski in New York.
“That was the level I started at and I saw how productive it was, starting low-key at this club,” Miller said. “That was what I tried to create in Alaska.”
This cycle of giving back is one of the greatest examples of the power of the modern Olympic movement. That athletes at the top of their game will inspire is almost a given from the moment they don their nation’s colors; it’s the ones who go out of their way to engage kids in sports that have a real impact on the world beyond the playing field.
By the time Miller got to the giving-back phase of her career, the world of biathlon, of skiing, and of sports in general were vastly different than the one she grew up in. Where she was once one of the few developing female biathletes in the country, she was now introducing the sport to a sizeable group of kids in just one small town in Alaska.
Technique was also more established. When Miller was in high school it was the 1980s, and skating was still trickling across the Atlantic by word-of-mouth. At the development level, friends relied on friends who’d seen Europeans ski with their boards in a V, and she’d excelled early on largely because someone had been there to show her the finer points. Twenty years later there were instructional videos and better equipment that helped bring everyone closer to the same page.
Perhaps most significantly, it was no longer some great stretch of the imagination for one of the girls she was coaching to dream of being an Olympic champion someday.
* * *
At the time of our conversation, Miller had moved on from Alaska and from coaching. She currently lives in Shelburne, Vermont, where she moved with her family in 2010. She is forty-five and her children, Xander, Mackenzie and Sasha, are of the ages to have a dozen after-school activities to be shuttled to every day.
Miller laughs when she describes her present primary occupation: “I call it a domestic engineer… Landscaping is my training now. We’re putting a hockey rink in the front yard; the kids are getting excited.”
Xander, her eldest, is 14 years old, and Miller has been careful in introducing her own kids to sports, making sure not to let her competitive past place undue pressure on them.
“I’ve been real gentle,” she said. “I think, as they’ve gotten older they’ve figured out what I’ve done, the level it was at. Now they understand what the Olympics are.”
Her two sons are more at home on a hockey rink than on a racecourse, but Miller says the athletic arena has often been the setting where she passes the lessons she’s learned from biathlon onto them.
“With my oldest, when we talk sports, when it’s just — getting prepared for a game, or shaking off teammates and not letting things bug you, he knows I understand that, and he can gain from that,” she said.
“It’s neat to bring those things that they learn to what they try to do with the teams they’re involved in. The people dynamics, the relationships that you try to build. Yeah, not everyone will be your best bud but they could be a great teammate and you can have a great team, and you need to learn to accept each other’s little quirks, their differences… That’s neat to see as he’s getting older, and I think it’ll be similar when my other kids get older as well.”
When you talk to a former professional athlete about what she’s done since leaving competition, you want her to say, with perfect eloquence, how sport forever changed her. You want the narrative arc of her athletic trajectory to mean so much, to somehow represent something about her life beyond the racecourse.
I’m not sure if I found this perfect symbolism in one short phone call, if such a thing exists, but Miller said something touching when we were talking about her kids. When her family moved back east and began settling into their new house, Miller and her husband wanted to help make Vermont feel like home. They let Xander, Mackenzie and Sasha pick out their own bedroom décor from a collection of familiar photos and mementos from their old home in Alaska: Miller’s photography of Alaskan wildlife, items from Allan’s travels and, of course, memorabilia from the Olympics.
“We said to them, ‘Why don’t you pick through what you want for your room here in Vermont,’” Miller said. One chose photos of a trip from Antarctica, another went for pictures of a kayaking expedition. And the oldest, Xander, went for pictures of his mom in the Olympics.
“It was neat to see what they gravitated to — ‘Mom, is it OK if I…?’ So half the bedroom has my Olympic photos.”
That room sounds familiar.