3-time Paralympian Nichole Millage on the true value of sports
By Greg Bach
Nichole Millage has always loved sports, whether it was playing volleyball and softball during her youth, or these days competing as a decorated Paralympic athlete in Rio at her third Paralympic Games.
“Sports have always been super important to me and I definitely enjoy being part of team sports,” Millage says. “I’ve always found a lot of comfort in taking part, the challenge of it, setting goals, working hard, building relationships, being dedicated – I’ve always enjoyed all of those things.”
What a fabulous message for young athletes, and a wonderful reminder for coaches and parents, on the true value of competing.
“You just have to keep reminding yourself that there are going to be ebbs and flows and there are going to be really good things that happen and then things that make you not feel so good,” Millage says. “But that’s just life – and sports are a metaphor for life.”
She knows this as well as anyone.
CAPITALIZE ON OPPORTUNITIES
Her life took an unexpected turn when, at the age of 21, she had her left leg amputated just below the knee after it was caught in the propeller of a boat.
“I have talked to quite a few kids about my experiences and they can see someone who was in a horrible accident and overcame losing part of my leg and is making the most of it and not letting it define me,” she says. “Losing my limb was just one part about me – it’s not who I am.”
And what does she want kids to take away from their interaction?
“It’s about making the most of the opportunities that are presented to you,” Millage says.
She’s certainly backed up those words.
HIGH HIGHS AND LOW LOWS
In 2004 she went to an Amputee Coalition of America camp for kids with disabilities to help out as a counselor. During the camp they introduced the different Paralympic sports to the kids.
“This was also an introduction for me because I had never heard of or seen most of the sports that were there,” Millage says. “And one of the sports happened to be sitting volleyball.”
So she took to the floor to give it a shot. Sitting volleyball is similar to standing volleyball except that serves can be blocked, the height of the net is lower and the court dimensions are smaller. Players must maintain contact between their pelvis and the floor at all times.
“I sat down and I was intrigued and I was baffled and I was confused,” she says.
Her skills from a lifetime of playing the sport standing up were evident.
“I was a 5-foot-7 middle hitter, which was not very tall for a middle hitter but I loved the fact that I was capable of doing it and that I was pretty good at it,” Millage says. “So I took a lot of pride in that.”
So she was coaxed to come to the national team’s training camp the following year.
“I went to my first training camp in March of 2005 and it was the hardest thing I have ever done,” she says. “Once I started to learn more and saw the success the team had at the 2004 Games in Athens where they won the bronze medal I started to see that this is a pretty good opportunity and I want to kind of jump on board.”
Ever since, she has been a key piece of the team, where as an outside hitter she has helped Team USA win silver at both the ’08 Games in Beijing and the ’12 Games in London.
“Especially with sports there are always really high highs and really low lows,” she says. “You can feel on top of the world one day and think that you are just the best volleyball player in the whole world and the next day things just don’t go your way and you feel like you’re the worst volleyball player in the world.”
For Millage it’s about facing challenges head on, discovering inner strength, savoring the triumphs and rebounding from the disappointments.
That’s what sports, and life, are all about.
“My advice to young athletes is just remind yourself that it’s not always going to be easy,” says Millage. “But it will be worth it.”
Four-time Olympian Katie Uhlaender on savoring the joys of competing, conquering pressure, staying focused, and more
Football coach Rob Mendez on teaching young athletes the all-important values of working hard, being resilient and chasing dreams
In recognition of Children’s Cardiomyopathy Awareness Month, check out Part Two of our conversation with Lisa Yue, Board President of the Children’s Cardiomyopathy Foundation