Updated: August 1, 2009 at 12:00 am
Asya Miller, a superstar in her sport, roamed the Olympic Training Center for an hour Wednesday afternoon without being recognized.
Last summer in Beijing, she led the U.S. to a dramatic gold-medal victory over China. She dominated the final. She still returned to her homeland anonymous.
She understands. She realizes she’s a master of a largely secret sport, Paralympic goalball.
Today, Miller is scheduled to throw the discus, javelin and shot put at the State Games of America, which has brought thousands of athletes to Colorado Springs.
She’s throwing to take a break. For years, she’s focused on goalball, a sport that’s taken her around the world.
“I’m throwing for fun,” said Miller, who has lived in Colorado Springs for three years. “I guess I want to see if I’ve still got it.”
No doubt, she’s got it in goalball. She scored all six of the U.S. goals in the Paralympic final against China, where Americans had to conquer one of the world’s best teams along with a rowdy, if surprisingly cordial, Beijing crowd.
She scored 21 goals in China while chasing bad memories from the 2000 Sydney Games, when the U.S. failed to medal, and 2004 Athens Games, when she settled for silver.
Miller has learned not to settle, even if she suffers from vision impairment. When she began high school, her eyesight slowly faded, and no one could explain why.
But during her junior year, doctors discovered she suffered Stargardt’s Disease, or juvenile macular degeneration. She declined to indulge in self-pity. She remained a strong student.
And she grew more resolved to compete.
Before her vision troubles, Miller was a frustrated athlete after being cut from junior high and high school golf, basketball, softball and soccer teams.
When she enrolled at Western Michigan, she met a large group of vision-impaired students. She discovered a new set of friends facing the same challenges she did.
She also discovered a path to a worldwide community when new friends encouraged her to try goalball.
The sport is embraced by nearly every region of the world. The game, a blend of team handball, basketball and soccer, has yet to catch on with the masses in the U.S.
Paralympic goalball features a fascinating twist. All competitors suffer from vision loss. Miller said her vision is 20/200, with the aid of special contacts.
To even the competition, all Paralympic goalball competitors wear blackened goggles. This means no one on the court sees anything.
The ball has bells, and raised lines on the court allow players to know where they stand. As a shot careens toward the goal, players can’t see the ball, but they can hear it.
In total personal darkness, the competitors engage in lively, intense matches.
Miller adores goalball, but she’s growing weary. She might switch from throwing a ball about the size of a basketball to competing in field events. She wants to compete at the London Paralympics in 2012, but she might try a new challenge.
Why would she retire from goalball?
“Because it hurts,” she said. “You get beat up. You throw as hard as you can 70 times a game. Goalball wears on you.”
She knows she can’t forever compete on the international stage and has made plans for a new career. In 2008, she completed her master’s degree in criminal justice at Colorado-Colorado Springs, and she hopes for job offers.
Right now, Miller hopes for victory at the State Games.
She talked a few feet away from the Training Center’s gift shop while surrounded by dozens of tourists. She’s earned a bronze medal (in the discus) and a silver and a gold for her country.
No one recognized her. No one even paid attention when she walked around carrying a javelin, which resembles a spear.
She doesn’t mind.
She’s busy plotting her next medal.
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