She Serves

When Life Presented Obstacles, This Paralympian Saw Opportunities

Emilee White

Kari Miller-Ortiz grew up with strong women as role models — her mom was a single mother working as a homicide detective in Washington, D.C. and her Aunt served in the United States Army. 

Inspired by her mom and Aunt’s bravery and courage, Miller-Ortiz joined the Army after graduating high school. She was sent to places like Bosnia, Germany, and Korea during her service, but Miller-Ortiz’s ultimate goal was to go to Officer Candidate School, OCS, to become an officer. In December 1999, Miller-Ortiz returned home while on leave to celebrate the holidays with her friends and family, and to celebrate the fact she had earned enough credits to attend OCS. Miller-Ortiz had her life all mapped out, but unfortunately, her plans were about to be uprooted.

It all happened in a blink of an eye — one moment, she was driving with her friends to get something to eat; the next moment, she was trapped in the wrecked car. Miller-Ortiz and her friends had been hit from behind by a drunk driver going 180 mph, causing the car to spin out of control, and crash into an electrical pole. The impact caused Miller-Ortiz to lose consciousness, and when she eventually came to, she was greeted by a man perched on the car roof. Confused as to why she was still inside the car, Miller-Ortiz soon realized the electrical pole, which wouldn’t be cut through, had pinned her inside the wreck. 

Photo credit: Kari Miller-Ortiz
“I just told him, ‘Whatever you need to do, if you have to cut off my legs, whatever, just get me out,’” Miller-Ortiz said. “Just make it happen. He gave me a hug and put me to sleep. I woke up in the hospital and I knew that I didn't have legs.”

In the wake of her double amputation, Miller-Ortiz knew it was going to be an uphill climb while she adjusted to life without her legs, especially being an above-the-knee amputee on one leg and a below-the-knee amputee on the other. But with her mother at her side, Miller-Ortiz maintained a positive attitude through it all and didn’t let her disability stop her from moving forward.

While she continued to adapt to her new way of life, her mother, who taught Miller-Ortiz to play basketball, steered her towards trying out wheelchair basketball, and she instantly fell in love with the sport. Miller-Ortiz went on to play collegiate wheelchair basketball at the University of Illinois and was invited to try out for the U.S. Paralympic wheelchair basketball team, but life had another path for her to take. 

“I didn’t make the wheelchair basketball team and I was sad, but I was talking to one of my teammates and she [suggested trying sitting volleyball],” Miller-Ortiz said. “I ended up trying it out and fell in love with it. I wasn't chosen initially for the U.S. Paralympic team because I didn't really know what I was doing, but that didn't stop me from trying.”

Miller-Ortiz, who had no prior volleyball experience, made the Paralympic squad on her second attempt and quickly became one of the best Defensive Specialists in the world. Miller-Ortiz led her team to a silver medal at the 2007 Paralympic Games and continued to rack up the medals in the years that followed, including the gold medal at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. 

Something was missing, though. There had to be more to life than just being an athlete, Miller-Ortiz hoped. She had gone to school and obtained a degree in biology, but Miller-Ortiz still didn’t feel fulfilled. That’s when Miller-Ortiz joined the U.S. Paralympic Military Program and started implementing new programs for injured service members at Walter Reed, Bethesda Naval, and Fort Belvoir

“I was able to give back to other service members,” Miller-Ortiz said. “We were able to teach fitness centers and other individuals with physical disabilities adaptive sports.”
Photo credit: Kari Miller-Ortiz's Twitter

Eventually, Miller-Ortiz made her way to the sidelines and served as a sitting volleyball coach for the Army and Air Force teams at both the Warrior Games and Prince Harry's Invictus Games. However, at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, Miller-Ortiz wasn’t seen on the court, as an athlete or coach, but rather in the broadcasting booth as a color commentator for sitting volleyball. She had no idea how she got the gig; one day, she was getting a call to be interviewed for the color commentator position, and the next thing Miller-Ortiz knew, she was in the broadcasting booth at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. As the Paralympian continues to move forward in life with her disability, she doesn’t forget the advice her mother gave her long ago in her hospital room. 

“You don't always have to be strong,” Miller-Ortiz said. “You can cry, it's okay. You can be angry, it's okay. Life is messy. Feel what you want to feel. Life may not be easy, but you could still be a part of it, enjoy it, and be productive in it. Just be adaptable and feel everything that you want — and need — to feel.”

Photo credits: Courtesy of Kari Miller-Ortiz and her Twitter