Paralympian Kari Miller-Ortiz Leaves No One on the Sidelines
By Shuan Butcher, Move United
Kari Miller-Ortiz always knew she wanted to serve. "Growing up, my aunt was in the military and she was a woman I looked up to. So, that is what I wanted to be." She was also raised by a single mom and was looking for a way to pay for college, so joining the Army was a no brainer. Miller-Ortiz had a recruiter that told her to pick a military occupation that would be transferable in the civilian world and also informed her that some positions had sign-on bonuses. As a result, her military job was Transportation Management Coordinator which focused on logistics and planning for airplanes, highways and barges. That job took her to various different bases including ones located in Germany, Korea and Kosovo.
Future Sitting Volleyball Star Got Her Start with Wheelchair Basketball
While off duty, Miller-Ortiz was riding as a passenger in a car when it was struck by a drunk driver. "I was crushed from the waist down and trapped. They amputated me (her leg) on the scene." After being treated at a local hospital, she would end up doing her rehab at the National Rehabilitation Hospital and physical therapy at the VA.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., sports were a huge part of her life. "My mom was the basketball coach at the elementary school level, so I played basketball. I also ran track in high school." So sports were a part of her life post injury as well.
She would play wheelchair basketball at the University of Illinois and even be asked to try out for the U.S. team. "That was my goal. I wanted to be the top of the top." Unfortunately, most of her teammates were selected, but Miller-Ortiz wasn't. "I was dejected."
However, a teammate of hers suggested she try sitting volleyball. "Initially, I didn't think that was my thing. I thought it would be stupid because I was a basketball girl." But she decided to give it a try and attended a practice in Atlanta.
"You don't realize how scary the sport can be until you see a flying ball coming at your face at a million miles an hour from a 6-foot-tall woman. That is when I realized I love this sport. It was about being able to get your aggression out, being able to be free."
"For me, every day I am kind of hindered. When I walk or do something, I have to have prosthetics on. I am always encumbered. When you are playing sitting volleyball, you take all that off. It's just you, the court and the ball."
Kari Parleys Brilliant Paralympic Career into More Adaptive Sports Opportunities for PWDs
At that time, the team was getting ready to go to Athens. "I thought I would just get to make that team. That wasn't the case. But she would practice, get better, and make the team. She would play in her first world championship in 2006 and then be a part of three Paralympic teams. In 2008 and 2012, the U.S. would earn silver medals. In 2016, it was time. The team did win gold. "The competition grew over that four-year period, but the U.S. team grew more…you don't practice for second."
"A lot of times people think adaptive sports means easier. It does not. Sometimes we (adaptive athletes) do ourselves an injustice because we make it look easy or effortless."
She would try other adaptive sports along the way. "Once you take that step past what you are comfortable with, it opens you up. I ended up liking something beyond what I knew." She would attend a VA event and enjoy shooting and other individual sports. "I love archery and rowing."
Although Miller-Ortiz would earn an undergraduate degree in biology with the intent of being a veterinarian, her career path has been significantly different. She would help stand up the Paralympic Military Program at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda. "I was focusing on all the things they could do rather than all the things they couldn't." She would help train other facilities and staff across the U.S. how to teach adaptive sports. "I learned a bunch of different adaptive sports—I may not be good at them all, but I do know how to play just about everything."
After the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games in London, Miller-Ortiz ended up creating the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program. She also hosted clinics and coached. Then after the 2016 Rio Games, she started a sitting volleyball program in Texas where she lives.
But recently, she became the Director of People and Culture at Move United, and is looking forward to expanding those that are served through adaptive sports. "Move United has been, from the beginning, one of the organizations I have always turned to for help. I have always had them to lean on. So to be able to be a part of the people that people lean on is a no brainer."
NOTE: Paralympic Gold Medalist Kari Miller-Ortiz will be leading a sitting volleyball demo at the Houston Abilities Expo on Sunday, August 7th at 1:00 pm. She will also be at the Move United booth (#517) throughout the weekend, so feel free to stop by and say hello.Pre-Register for Abilities Expo Today...It's Free!