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Stephen Miller

05 August 2010

As the "two years to go" anniversary fast approaches for the London 2012 Paralympic Games, athletes who are new to the UKA World Class Performance Programme (Paralympic), as well as those more experienced athletes such as Stephen Miller, the first in the series (below), will be featured on the UKA website.

Gateshead’s Stephen Miller has represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland for over 10 years including four Paralympic Games, three World Championships and two European Championships. As experience goes, he’s a veteran member of the squad, but science dictates otherwise. “I’m actually at the right age to peak in my event,” says 30-year-old Miller, who has won an incredible 24 medals on the global stage since his Paralympics debut at 16. It’s good news really, since his primary focus - his “sole focus”, he says - is London 2012.

Miller, who competes primarily in the Club Throw event, first got involved in athletics when he was 11. His parents took him along to an after-school club every Monday where he met Norman Burns, a Paralympic medallist who would become his coach. “The facilities were very basic and I soon outgrew throwing beanbags in the small sports hall to throwing clubs in the small field outside,” he says. “I would challenge myself to throw over telephone wires and to get clubs into the back gardens at the end of the field. It was a world away from what young athletes have these days but it didn't do me any harm.”

Nobody would argue otherwise. He pulled on a GB vest for the first time at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta 1996, a somewhat fast-track progression from modern day apprentice to fully qualified international athlete. “I can’t remember much about it,” he admits of his first major competition, although he does recollect seeing himself on the big screen and exclaiming “that’s me!” with a sense of disbelief. It’s funny what fame does. 

“It was all a blur,” he recollects. “I’d made a very fast progression from being a junior athlete to being on the GB senior team. I got selected to represent England and Wales at 15 and came second, and with that performance I was called into the GB squad. Before I knew it I was heading to Atlanta.”

He praises Ray Knight, his coach at the time, who he says, “did a brilliant job of keeping his head together”, but physically he held it together perfectly himself. “Unexpectedly I won the competition and became the youngest ever GB gold medallist in Olympic and Paralympic track and field,” he says.  His parents bought him some Oakley sunglasses as a reward; it was a successful first outing all around.

Over the course of the past decade Miller has developed as an athlete and the sport has evolved. Most recently, the publication of the Raza System has contributed to the need for stable and transparent practice.  “With points tables and combined classification all you want is fairness across the board and a system that can’t be manipulated by performances to favour one class over another,” he says. “The Raza System is the closest we’ve come to achieving that so it can only be positive. Of course I’d like a situation where classes don’t need to be combined and that it’s clear cut - that the person who throws the furthest wins - but unfortunately there aren’t enough athletes to do that.”

His comment is valid, but through emerging programmes such as Aviva Parallel Success, more athletes are getting more opportunities to get involved and will ultimately, it’s hoped, raise the overall standards in the UK and in turn across the world. 

Miller’s current personal best measures 34.37m and he’s consistently been ranked number one in the world. He has a new throwing frame and is confident he can improve that mark further in the countdown to London. On the global stage, however, a World Championships precedes that landmark occasion, and he’s already gone someway to cementing his own place in history with three titles to his name to date. So what would a fourth gold medal in Christchurch, New Zealand (January 2011) mean to him? “It's a great opportunity,” he says, “winning three in a row was very special and emotional back in 2006 and I think winning my fourth world title on the bounce would be an historic achievement. Since Beijing it's been a tough time for me, I've got a chronic problem with my hip that started in 2006, and the only long-term solution is a hip replacement. However, the recovery time is up to a year, and with no guarantee that I would be able to get back to the top level of sport I decided to put it off until after London 2012 and I have painkilling injections every few months. So far we are managing very well and I'm confident it won't be a problem leading in to these two major events.”

It’s undoubtedly commitment to the cause, and his tough training schedule, which involves weights and technical work totalling approximately 14 hours per week over six days, reflects that.

What’s more, his life isn’t just about athletics; he’s supported Newcastle United for as long as he can remember and is secretary of the club’s Disabled Supporters Group. He enjoys going to gigs, going to the pub with his mates and spending time with his “beautiful” girlfriend Rachel. He also works part time as a web developer at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead.

All in all he’s a perfect mentor for the athlete’s he’s pleased to see progress through the system, but what advice would he give to aspiring GB Paralympians? “Enjoy sport for the right reasons, don’t look too far ahead and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Yes, it’s important to have dreams and aspirations, but remember that sport is supposed to be fun. If you demand the best of yourself while still enjoying the day to day training, then you'll have every chance of succeeding. Learning is very important in sport, always look to ask questions about your sport and take advice on board and set ambitious goals for yourself.”

Miller has enjoyed a hugely successful career to date and while he admits that winning his third straight Paralympic gold in Athens 2004 was special, he feels privileged to have been able to dedicate his life to athletics throughout a time of fantastic support for GB athletes. “Of course every one of my Paralympic and World medals is special to me - and winning gold is my biggest ambition with every competition I enter - but perhaps surprisingly, my greatest moments so far are throwing a PB to win a silver in the discus at the World Championships in 2002 because it was a great performance when I wasn't expected to come anywhere near a medal, and coming back from fourth place in the club with my final throw in Beijing to finish second, with what was my best ever throw in a major competition - that was very special, especially as it was the last time my dad watched me throw, unfortunately he passed away this January after a battle with bowel cancer which was diagnosed shortly after we got back from Beijing. To know he was there to see my greatest performance is a bit of a comfort.”

There may be even greater things to come. He knows that competing in a home Olympic Games is a once in a lifetime opportunity and has chosen to put his body on the line to do so. “To win on front of a home crowd would be even more special than any medal I've ever won before, and it's given me a sense of purpose and an even bigger desire to get back to world number one,” he says. “My mam’s been coaching me since Beijing, and it would be a fantastic achievement if I could take gold in London for both of us.”

In light of his wisdom and experience, it may come as no surprise that he envisages a role in athletics beyond his competition years, a position which would enable him to put something back into the sport which has given him so much. “Yes, I can definitely see myself as a coach in the future, but I think I might be very hard to please,” he laughs. “I think I’ll make a tough coach - just like my mam is with me.”

Beijing Paralympic Games bronze medallist Stefanie Reid, who made her Aviva Great Britain and Northern Ireland team debut at the Paralympic World Cup in May, will be the next athlete featured later this month.