Years of competing at the highest level ended in disappointment at last summer’s Paralympics for Stephen Miller. Paul Fraser caught up with the cerebral palsy athlete to hear his thoughts for a future which could hold exciting times for disabled sportsmen and women
AS one of Britain’s most decorated Paralympians, Stephen Miller thought twice about his involvement in the heroes’ parade which followed a summer of incredible scenes at the Olympic Park.
To the rest of the country and the majority of the athletes involved in both the Olympics and Paralympics, the weeks of excellent sporting competition last summer gripped the entire nation - and beyond.
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For Miller, though, he had to overcome personal disappointment before really engaging and enjoying the whole experience. Holding high hopes for winning gold in front of a home crowd, the North-East-born athlete was left deflated and despondent by his own performance.
The 32-year-old, after winning three gold medals in a row in Atlanta, Sydney and Athens, failed to advance to the final round of the F31/32/51 club throw event after finishing outside the top eight.
As soon as he left the cage the frustration hit him. The veteran cerebral palsy athlete, competing in his fifth Paralympics having also won silver in Beijing four years earlier, saw his dreams of showing his best in London disappear in front of him.
For someone that had shared a victory parade on the same float at Dame Kelly Holmes in 2004, he initially felt like he did not deserve to be boarding an open-top bus to wave to thousands through Trafalgar Square.
On reflection he knows he was right to join in that day. Rather than dwell on the outcome of his own individual heartache, which was significantly affected by a long-standing hip complaint, he was just pleased and honoured to have been such an integral part of the whole Olympic movement.
"It was still a positive experience,” said Miller, sporting his Team GB vest this week in Newcastle where he was trying out a new Speedflex system he feels will lead to a sixth Paralympics appearance in Rio in 2016.
“I knew I had the hip problem beforehand. I made the decision two years before not to have the operation because I wanted to compete in London. It was the home Games. If it had not been in London then I would probably have had the operation.
“But time ran out for me unfortunately. I knew the pain would get bad, the doctor said it would get worse. Last summer the pain just got too bad. I couldn't cope any more.
“The experience of being team captain, to compete on the first morning in the stadium ... the atmosphere in the home stadium, I will never experience anything like that again in my life.
“I am still really proud that I got in to the team. I got picked on merit. I was ranked fourth in the world so on the day I was hoping to pull something out of the bag. Everybody had to have a bad day while I had a good day because of my injury. You can't win them all, so...”
Miller has no regrets. Despite a miserable finish his participation in front of 80,000 at the Olympic Stadium is something which eases the pain of coming up short.
He had been targeting 32-33 metres to win a medal and in the end he would have required a throw of 36.32m just to get bronze, which would have been 32cm on his personal best. Pointing to his hip, the pain he was feeling, he could only muster 26.70, his worst throw of the year.
Miller had his hip replacement last October and, as he continues his rehabilitation, he is determined to make up for last summer’s disappointment in Brazil.
“The disappointment from London has completely changed the way I'm thinking,” he said. “I said at the time I wanted to continue if my body was up to it. Now I'm 100 per cent confident I will get back to competing again.
“I am still in rehab until March-April. Hopefully I will start going again in April. I want to get in the team for the World Championships in July. This year there is no real pressure on me to compete and hopefully I can get my body right, get my hip right, and come back strong.
“I have got this hip for the rest of my life. I can't get a new one, so I have to take care of this one. The long term plan is to compete in Rio, to win the gold medal back. Had I done something special in London that might not have been my target, it is now.”
The success story of the British Paralympians - like swimmer Ellie Simmonds, wheelchair athlete David Weir and cyclist Sarah Storey - prompted strong calls for more frequent major competition for such competitors.
One of the biggest challenges facing the International Paralympic Committee is to ensure there is a long-standing legacy. Only this week the IPC revealed that they are investigating plans to launch a series of grand prix events this year.
Britain are at the forefront of the thinking, with the IPC hoping to trial a series of track and field meetings modelled on the International Association of Athletics Federations’ Diamond League concept.
Miller welcomed the move, but he is not expecting anything to happen too soon. He said: “I did compete in an event alongside the Diamond League meetings a few years ago (2010) in Gateshead. But I don't believe in integration.
“If it’s going to happen then I think that, with the success of the Paralympics, the right move would be to set up a completely different competition independent of able-bodied athletes’ meetings.
“If they were both together then it would not get as much coverage - like the Olympics and Paralympics. Separate is definitely the way to go. I don't think it will happen this year but next year, hopefully, in the build up to Rio.”
When Miller claimed silver medal at the Nottingham Cerebral Palsy International Robin Hood Games in 1995 it was the start of his journey to the top. A year later he was heading for Atlanta, where he claimed his first Paralympic gold. Ever since then he has been hoping for increased top level competition.
“We have been saying it for years that something is needed,” said Miller, from Cramlington, Northumberland, and a Northumbria University graduate.
“In fact I’ve been competing for 16 years and I can remember talk even then. We train all year round to compete in one major competition every four years. It is not enough really to generate the interest that is required to keep people watching.
“The top guys in the world need to be competing against each other more than once a year to keep up the interest. That is what is needed to happen to get the sponsorship, the media, the TV.
“You need something like that. I hope they could get some funding together to put it on because you can't keep having one major competition. It has to be more than that.”
UK Athletics, backing plans for a grand prix circuit, are also looking in to introducing races for elite disabled athletes in the established indoor meetings in Britain this winter.
And Miller, for all of his personal disappointment last summer, thinks disabled athletics deserves to enjoy an extended time in the spotlight after proving it has the ability to catch the eye.
“Hopefully it will happen. The Paralympics showed that people will watch it and that it is exciting. It's competition,” he said. “It's like-for-like competing against each other so it's no different to any other sport.
“It's exciting to watch and people will watch it. You don't get 80,000 people in a stadium to watch the Paralympics if it's rubbish. There must be something there. If you can get the right money, the right venue then I think people will come to watch.”
And Miller is hoping his new hip and a renewed determination will keep him involved.
PARALYMPIAN Stephen Miller was speaking after joining former Newcastle United captain Alan Shearer as an ambassador for Speedflex.
Miller, born with cerebral palsy and in a wheelchair, and Shearer could work alongside one another on the same machines after the innovative Speedflex system was brought over to the region by North-East businessman Graham Wylie.
And Miller, who had a hip replacement last October, said: “Had it been around before I might not have needed a new hip. I needed a new hip because of the wear and tear of 16 years of training. Putting my body through it.
“When you do a lot of weights it is high impact you feel like you have been hit by a bus when you wake up in the morning. With Speedflex you wake up and raring to go again. It's an amazing machine. Really positive for me.”
* For more information and to try out the Speedflex system log on to www.speedflex.com in Jesmond, Newcastle. There are plans in place for Speedflex to be phased in across the country.