On Sept. 28, 2022, President Joe Biden hosted the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. The president and his administration established five pillars to define the scope of the goals to improve the overall health and wellness of the citizens of the United States.
Aside from the president himself, there were several speakers who offered their thoughts and expertise on the matters at hand. Among those was Kari Miller-Ortiz, who serves as the director of people and culture at Move United. Move United works to get people more active in sports, regardless of ability. Miller-Ortiz expressed that the moment was unsettling because of the changes in both her speech and the time she had allotted to speak.
“I’m not the type to say no, so I was like, ‘OK, I will do this.’”
Miller-Ortiz rose to the occasion and represented her organization and the American people well. Most people would’ve found that situation as a challenging form of adversity to get through, but Miller-Ortiz has done that a lot, and she’s been through greater forms of adversity than speaking publicly. The United States Army veteran had prepared for such when she made the decision to join the military. The inspiration from that came from within her family members such as her single mom who worked as a detective, and her aunt who had served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm.
“I didn’t want [her mom] to have to pay for college,” said Miller-Ortiz. “The opportunity showed itself and I joined the Army.”
Unfortunately, her career ambitions in the Army came to a halt in 1999. She had been on missions in places such as Bosnia when she came home for the holidays. While on leave and out with friends, she was in a car accident with a drunk driver.
“I remember being in the car and not knowing what was going on. I felt like something was squeezing my chest, but I couldn’t see anything.”
A utility pole had fallen on top of the car. When the paramedics showed up, they cut the top of the car off. They then determined there was only one way to get Miller-Ortiz out of the vehicle—amputate both of her legs.
“I told the guy that if he had to cut my legs off, I’d forgive him. Just get me out of here. So, they knocked me out and cut my legs off right there on the scene.”
A helicopter would take Miller-Ortiz to a local hospital. Her mother was initially told that she actually died in the accident. When her aunt was told that news, Miller-Ortiz said she knew better.
“She was like, ‘No, I don’t believe it,’” Miller-Ortiz recalled. “She gets in the car, leaves, drives to the hospital, saw me, and then called my mom and said, ‘Nope, she’s here.’”
The driver of the car Miller-Ortiz was in passed away, another passenger suffered back and neck injuries, and another passenger escaped unharmed. Miller-Ortiz found her way to move forward, and she credited her family for helping her during that period of her life, including her mother, aunt, and uncle.
She found another way to move forward through sports and fitness. She described herself as a kid as a tom-boy, and mentioned she played football with the boys in her neighborhood streets, and she has the proof to go along with it.
“I have all kinds of injuries and leftover scars from that,” she stated proudly. “I played basketball as well. I was pretty much a jock.”
Miller-Ortiz lives with prosthetic legs, but she was offered a chance to try playing wheelchair basketball. She didn’t feel comfortable at first because she does walk, but she eventually gave it a try, and she was humbled quickly.
“I grew up playing basketball, so I thought I was a baller. I rolled up to shoot a free throw, and that ball went nowhere. This little girl scooped it up, went in and scored a layup.”
Nonetheless, Miller-Ortiz fell in love with the sport, and she kept playing. She improved tremendously and went on to play at the college level for the University of Illinois. Miller-Ortiz was even granted an opportunity to try out for Team USA in 2007.
“You have to be the best of the best to get that opportunity,” she shared. “I was like, ‘Heck, yeah!’”
Miller-Ortiz gave her best, but she wasn’t selected to make the team. She then moved on to wheelchair volleyball, and that is where she would see her greatest success as an athlete. After going to Atlanta to try playing for the first time, she started working with coach Michael Hulett, who was also a quad-amputee. He had no hands or legs.
“At one time, he was one of the top volleyball players in the world. He was amazing,” said Miller-Ortiz. She admitted to never playing volleyball before, but she went to try for the Paralympics anyway. She missed the cut on her first try, but she made the team on her next attempt. The success just grew from there.
“I was named Best Defensive Specialist in the world,” she said. Her team won silver at the 2007 Paralympic Games, and would continue earning bronze and silver medals over the years since. She was also named Paralympian of the Year in 2009. Her career highlight came in 2016 when her team won gold at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her team were invited to the White House, where President Barack Obama spoke about her.
While she was playing, Miller-Ortiz also found another way to serve her country and support the military. She started working with the US Paralympic Military program, where she started new programs for injured servicemembers at Walter Reed, Bethesda Naval, and Fort Belvoir. She also made her way into coaching, by serving as a sitting volleyball coach for Army and Air Force teams for wounded, ill and injured athletes.
“That community is often overlooked,” she explained. Move United is the largest adaptive organization in America. Their mission is to help individual with disabilities are given opportunities to participate in sports. Miller-Ortiz can relate to the people she serves both as an adaptive citizen and a sports enthusiast. One of her missions is to increase awareness of adaptive sports and share the opportunities to participate that people may not know about.
“Ninety percent of all Americans can participate in an adaptive sport within 50 miles of their home,” she revealed.
Between her personal experience, her athletic accomplishments, and her professional service, Miller-Ortiz has made many great strides in helping adaptive athletes and even beginners learn more about themselves and feel the same sense of community. She expressed pride in being a part of the adaptive community, and she has connections that will last a lifetime.
“With me being an adult and some of these kids being 16, some being from Kansas, some being from Hawaii or other places, there’s no way I would’ve had a shared experience with these people that I do today. However, now that I’ve gone through that, I have weddings and kids to buy gifts for. It’s a family.” For more information on Move United, go to www.moveunitedsport.org.