Biathlete shares spirit of Olympic lifestyle with aspiring competitors

Posted: Sunday, November 05, 2000

Surely Joan Miller was "that kid" on the slopes in upstate New York, where she grew up.

You know the type. As you struggled and snowplowed your way down your first black diamond, some neon-clad blur zipped past or possibly over your trembling frame, laughing with that same youthful exuberance that propels it headlong down the mountain at speeds unknown even to God or the astronauts.

You duck your head and make way for the rocketing embryonic talent whizzing past you and say out loud, perhaps amid some mild cursing, "Man, that kid is so fast."

Plenty of kids are fast on skis. But not all of them ski with rifles.

Miller made the first team in 1992. She made first team again in 1994 for the Olympics in Lilleham-mer, Norway, where she got 14th place, which was and still is the highest an American has placed in the Olympic women's biathlon. She had every intention to continue competing in the sport.

Since the eighth grade, Miller, who now resides in Soldotna, has had a clear idea of what her passion in life would be. That's when she discovered biathlons -- a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship.

"I pretty much grew up with biathlons," she said.

It's true. The Olympic biathlete got her first skiing medal in her first race, when she was in the first grade. It was a citizen's race, open to the public.

"I came back real psyched and excited, and from there it just grew," she said.

That medal would be the first of many achievements as Miller honed her skiing skills and gained experience.


Joan Miller gives chase during a soccer scramble with Skyview High School cross-country skiers. Miller is assisting coach Kent Peterson as the season gets underway.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

When Miller was in the eighth grade in Honeoye Falls, N.Y., Ruth Hayes, a fourth-grade teacher, introduced her to biathlons. Miller began training for biathlons at the now defunct Crown City Biathlon Club, outside Ithaca. From there, Miller embarked on a career that would chart her life.

While still in eighth grade, she competed in the amateur-level Empire State Games, which mirrored the Olympic Games, complete with opening and closing ceremonies.

"I became really intrigued with the sport of biathlons," during that event, she said.

She was a versatile athlete who also played varsity soccer and ran track. She was on the high school ski team, as well, and competed for her school during the week while competing in biathlons on the weekends.

When she reached college, Miller had to balance her time between soccer and biathlons. When it became obvious that she couldn't do both while studying as a full-time undergraduate student, Miller decided she had to choose one sport over the other.

What made the decision especially difficult was the fact that biathlons were not sanctioned Olympic events for women at the time, a source of frustration for her and many women biathletes that was the result of European sentiment about the sport. Women biathletes had dreamed big and hoped their sport would be open to them in the 1988 Calgary Games. It wasn't.

Times changed, however, and by 1992 women had a biathlon event in the Albertville Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, Miller had spent enough time -- one semester -- playing soccer and studying to realize that with the '92 games she had a one-time opportunity to follow her biathlon dreams. She left school to compete in the '92 Winter Olympics.

"You can go to school when you're up to 80 years old," she said, reflecting on her decision.

Miller made the first team in 1992. She made first team again in 1994 for the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where she got 14th place, which was and still is the highest an American has placed in the Olympic women's biathlon. She had every intention to continue competing in the sport.

However, Miller said she later realized she needed a break after the Lillehammer games.

"I was really hitting my peak but was getting burned out on the lifestyle," she said. "I needed to break with the scene ... and experience some other things."

Miller said her coaches wanted her to remain on the team.

"They wanted to use me as a benchmark," she said.

Her mind was made up, however, and she had decided to return to school.

"My priority was definitely my college career at that point," she said.

Miller departed for Cortland State University in New York and hit the books.

Academic life, which for Miller ultimately took place at three different colleges -- all near biathlon training camps -- didn't keep her out of biathlons. She continued to train while she was in school.

"I was still able to hook up with the team," she said.

She made the World Champion Team, which participates in the World Championships held in non-Olympic years. She participated in those games or Olympic games every year from 1986 to 1998, except for one break in 1991, when she was ill. That was the year of the Gulf War, when traveling was more dangerous than usual, and Miller said she didn't mind staying domestic for one season.

Biathlons resurfaced in her life in an unexpected way shortly after her departure following Lillehammer. At a competition in Sun Valley, Idaho, she met Allan Miller, a coach at Skyview High School who had driven two Skyview boys to the competition.

They met in a cereal aisle in Sun Valley grocery store and discovered they had more than biathlons in common. Allan also grew up in New York, two towns away from Honeoye Falls, and had even raced in the same circuit. She knew his brother's friends growing up.

"It's a small world," Miller said.

The two got to know each other better throughout that event and others. Allan asked her to help him coach a women's camp for 12 women juniors from around the United States.

"Lots of national athletes don't get involved in camps," Miller said. "We need to do that more."

She and Allan did and continue to do plenty. They married in 1998 and have found they complement each other well as coaches. Allan instructs from a coach's perspective, while Joan offers an athlete's point of view.

"It's really fun because it really meshes well," she said.

After moving to Soldotna, Miller planned to continue racing. She was training for the 1998 Olympic games when she caught the flu and an earache. She declined to take medication -- some athletes use common medications to mask performance-enhancing drugs in drug tests -- and had to stop training.

Instead of competing in the '98 winter games, Miller attended Kenai Peninsula College to finish her education, earning a degree in recreational education. Her focus is on therapeutic recreation and outdoor education.

These days, Miller is racing less and teaching more. She devotes most of her time to raising her son Xander ("like Alexander, but just the end," she said).

"My first priority is definitely raising him," she said.

She still skis and runs, and helps coach ski teams at Kenai and Soldotna middle schools. And every Monday night she and Allan train students for biathlons.

"Our goal was that they wouldn't be dependent on us but that they'd learn to do the exercises and workouts," she said.

She added that training for sports outside of school programs can be difficult for students anxious to compete on their school teams, since school sports take place on the weekends.

In addition to her self-assigned coaching role, Miller serves on the U.S. Biathlon Team Board of Directors. She's an athlete's representative.

She has a lot going on. But still, you wonder: will she ever compete again?

"It depends on how many more kids I have," she said, laughing.

Miller said she actually considered competing in Salt Lake City in the 2002 Winter Olympics. She was initially deterred by carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, but an operation removed that obstacle. Now she plans to stay home anyway, she said, to be with her son, who will be 2 this month.

"I've gone that route (Olympic competition) and gained so much from it," she said, but explained that to go to Salt Lake City to compete would seem self-centered.

"For me, I just can't see myself ... losing that time while (Xander) is growing," she said.

Miller said she loves and misses the skier's life and being in shape. She still runs and skis and said she can return to the sport if she wants to.

"I know what it takes to get there," Miller said.

And what about Xander? Will he be skiing when he gets older?

"He already has been," she said.

She and Allan have strapped him to their backs while they ski. Xander even played with some skis last winter, although, Miller admits, "he was better inside on the carpet."

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