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.