Volleyball player trains for Paralympics

August 27, 2012

The Olympian is home for the weekend, to this red brick two-story in the Brightwood neighborhood of Washington. Her mother has procured a bushel of crabs for the occasion, invited the whole family, set up card tables in the basement and covered them with paper. Fresh crabs and crawdads are a tradition in this house of gourmands — proud symbols of their Mid-Atlantic roots.

Mary Lanauze wears a jersey with her daughter’s name and number on it. “Kari Miller, 10.” She keeps track of her daughter’s Facebook followers, her daughter’s playing schedule. She makes sure that visitors to the house have seen Kari’s Citi commercial, the one where Kari changes from her Army uniform to her volleyball uniform, where she talks about how she’s still serving her country, just on the court instead of across an ocean.

“Mom.”

Kari is embarrassed but not really. This is what moms of Olympians do; they have earned the right. Kari rolls her eyes, good-naturedly and perfunctorily, and heads off to the kitchen to make the dipping sauce. There’s a little hitch in her step, the kind that could come from a sore muscle or a brutal workout. Especially in her right leg, which lags a little until Kari muscles it forward.

Like all top athletes, Kari Miller is a conglomeration of precious metals.

Her nerves are made of steel, her heart is made of gold, and her legs are made of titanium. Titanium and carbon fiber. They have been for 13 years.

Kari, 35, is a libero on the U.S. sitting volleyball team. Sitting volleyball is a Paralympic sport. It’s a punishing event, a high-speed blur of dives and digs, played entirely on the ground by players whose limbs are missing or not fully functional. The libero is a specialized defense player. She is not allowed to serve. She is not allowed to set, except under specific circumstances. Her skills are engaged only when the ball is already below the net, when hope is waning, when it seems that only a minor miracle will suck the point back from the other team. “My only job in life,” Kari says, “Is to make sure the ball doesn’t hit the ground.”

Before and after

Kari has long hair, a round, open face, muscled arms. If she’s met you once, she’ll hug you the second time. When she had legs, she was about 5-foot-4 and wished she were taller. A story that her mother likes to tell involves a grade-school talent show. The class suddenly became shy, en masse, refusing to sing the planned song. The teacher whispered, “Kari. Kari. Go!” because she thought that Kari wouldn’t be afraid, and she was right.

After graduating from Cardozo High, Kari joined the Army, serving in Bosnia and becoming a sergeant by the time she was 19. Her job was “transportation management coordinator.” She was good at it and she loved it — negotiating with foreign dignitaries, mapping out routes, figuring out supplies, analyzing all of the puzzle pieces attendant in getting objects from Point A to Point B. Her supervisors suggested that she apply for officer training. In late 1999 she came back to Washington to celebrate Christmas with her family and wait for the acceptance of her application materials.

That was Before.

After began on Dec. 19.

She had taken a cab to the club on U Street because she thought she might have a drink and wanted to be responsible. When she and her friends finished dancing, the night was old and the morning was young and they decided to drive to an IHOP in the suburbs for late-night pancakes, four of them piling into the car of a sober friend.

The driver that hit them ran a red light, but Kari didn’t learn that until later. The driver of Kari’s car died on impact, but she didn’t know that, either. What she knew was that something bashed into the side of their vehicle, sending it careening across the road. From the front passenger seat, Kari thought the motion felt like the teacup ride at an amusement park, and then thought about how odd it was that her brain was making that comparison at this moment in time.

Then she passed out.

When she woke up, she couldn’t breathe. The top of the car had been cut away, and the rescue worker standing above her said it was because she was wrapped around a telephone pole and they couldn’t get her out. “If you have to cut off my legs, it’s okay,” she remembers telling him. “I’ll forgive you.”

Across town, her mother, a D.C. homicide detective, had turned off the ringer of her home phone, which she’d learned was necessary to keep work from seeping into her private life. The next morning she saw she’d missed several calls, all from the same number. She dialed it back. It connected to a hospital.

By the time she got to Kari’s bedside, her daughter couldn’t talk; she had a tube in her throat. Mary gave her a notebook to communicate with and then asked, “Do you know what happened?”

“Yes,” Kari scrawled. “Car accident.”

Yes, her mother responded. “But do you know all of it?”

Kari wrote: “I know I don’t have my legs.”

One had been amputated below the knee, the other, just above.

She kept writing.

When she showed her mother the paper again, it said, “Don’t be sad. Now I can be as tall as I want to be.”

Her player bio on the USA Volleyball site lists her height as 5-foot-6.

Born and made

There are debates, old ones, about whether athletes are born or made. Michael Phelps wouldn’t be Michael Phelps without his albatross wingspan; female gymnasts couldn’t fly the way they do if they were 5-foot-8 instead of 4-foot-11. Their bodies are right for the sports they excel in.

Paralympic athletes are often made. It would be possible for an already-world-class volleyball player to lose a limb, then find her way to the sitting version of the sport. But it’s far more likely for a coach to find a disabled individual with latent athletic talent waiting to be molded into world-class performance.

Kari had always been athletic. She ran track. She took karate lessons, went to tennis camp, played basketball. After her accident, it was wheelchair basketball she thought she’d excel in, but after training for the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, she didn’t make the team.

She’d heard of sitting volleyball, but was dubious. In high school she’d gone to one volleyball practice, “but I wasn’t into the booty shorts.” A friend convinced her to try this version and explained a few basics, “Like, if the ball comes here, do this, if it goes there, do this.” When she got on a court, the rudimentary instructions flew out of her head.

“I saw the ball coming, and I just screamed, ‘Abort! Abort!’ The coached told me, ‘There’s no screaming in volleyball.’ ”

This was a sport, she decided, that she could respect.

Sitting at her mother’s dining room table, she tries to explain the rules of the game. The court is six by 10 meters. The net is one meter high. Standing is prohibited. Raising the rear from the floor is prohibited. Kari grabs a sheet of paper and begins to sketch out the court, the plays, the players, trying to explain how it all fits together.

“We’re planes, trains and automobiles,” she says — the ways that various players lost their limbs, and the dark humor used to describe them. Kari lost her legs in the car crash. Another player lost hers in a boating accident. Others were born with congenital disabilities, or fought cancer with amputation. They have come together, from all levels of ability and disability, to formulate the team that has the best chance of dethroning China in the sport of sitting volleyball.

Kari puts down her pen. “You know, you really need to see it,” she says. “Come and watch us play.”

Action sequence

“Mine!”

Lora Webster dives across the floor, launching herself from her hip, scooping the ball from thin air, keeping it aloft long enough for Kendra Lancaster to slam it over the net. On the other side of the net, Kari’s eyes train on the ball hurtling toward her.

“Mine!” she yells. Her hands propel her body several feet to the right. She squares her hips for stability and readies her hands. The ball makes contact with a stinging thwap. When she sends it back to the other side, Kari’s body is catapulted backward from the inverse force and she’s prone on the ground until she can use her stomach muscles to rock herself back up again.

This process takes about one second.

Edmond, Okla., is flat and dry, 88 square miles of shopping plazas and chain stores: Wal-Mart, Super Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets. It looks like a fine place to raise a family, but you wouldn’t think to eat crabs or crawdads here, even if you could find a place that served them. The welcome sign on the edge of town proudly proclaims Edmond as the home of Shannon Miller, the Olympic gymnast who won gold in the 1996 Games.

The sign doesn’t mention its other contribution to sport: Edmond has become, in recent years, the capital of Paralympic volleyball. They practice at the University of Central Oklahoma, through a partnership that also gives Kari and some of her fellow athletes free housing and reduced tuition.

Today is the first full day of training camp for team members, assembled from their homes across the country, to learn how to play together.

The natural human reaction, if an object is thrown in your face, is to deflect it. Bat it away. Spike it down. Our hands move before our feet do; when our legs follow a millisecond later, their main purpose is stabilization — counterbalancing the reaction of the hands. We move first, then we stabilize. Sitting volleyball players have those same instincts. But without the use of their legs, their instincts betray them. They might make contact with the ball, but tip over and be unable to regain balance in time for the next return.

So sitting volleyball players must deprogram their instincts. Know where the ball is going, plant there, prepare, and return the ball efficiently. Stabilize, then move. How one player moves is different from how another player must move to achieve the same effect. How is weight distributed differently on the amputated leg vs. the non-amputated? How much harder must one dive, dig, lean, to compensate for that difference?

On a sitting volleyball court containing 12 players, there are hundreds of these calculations occurring during any given second.

“People think that the sport has been — how would you say it? — made easier,” says Bill Hamiter, the coach of the national women’s sitting team. The people who have never seen sitting volleyball think that it’s a watered-down, gentler version of the real thing. Hamiter is not disabled. He was coaching traditional volleyball until he was tapped, a decade ago, to improve U.S. performance at the Paralympic Games. The point is, Hamiter says, “Regardless of their disabilities, these are great athletes.”

‘Much bigger’ legacy

“I’ve been thinking about what I want my legacy to be,” Kari says.

Her work with the Citi program is part of that. Its goal is to engage more wounded service members in Paralympic sports.

The Paralympics are part of that. Last year Kari was ranked the top libero in the field. The Games themselves are increasing awareness and changing perceptions of what it means to be disabled or to be an athlete.

“What I’ve been thinking,” she says, “is that my legacy is so much bigger than what would have happened if I had my legs.”

At the end of practice, after they’ve showered and eaten, the team packs into one player’s apartment to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. This is a team tradition. Closets have been raided to create absurd costumes. Someone is in a bathrobe and cowboy hat, another player wears nothing but an inflatable cooler patterned with the American flag. Kari has wrapped a leather belt around her head, pulled on some flowy skirts and popped a gold grill in her mouth. Gypsy pimp.

In late August, they will enter the same stadium and hold their own opening ceremonies, and so they scrutinize this one not as starstruck fans but as students and critics. Do the female athletes look better in shirts or pants? Everyone needs to remember not to chew gum — it looks bad if the cameras catch you in the act.

Despite the costuming, the energy tonight is low. It’s after 10 p.m. and the players were on the court for five hours today, running endless drills, scrimmaging, drilling some more. Sitting volleyball is especially tough on the shoulders and hip flexers. Half of the women have ice packs dripping from various parts of their bodies.

Still, the room only goes silent one time. In the middle of Danny Boyle’s ode to British industrialization, a choir of children appears to sing “God Save the Queen.” The camera pans slowly over rows of angelic faces and pauses, briefly, on two children using wheelchairs.

Kari speaks first. “Oh,” she says. “Future Paralympians.”

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