The word “heptathlon” does not flow easily off the tongue. The sport heptathlon does not come easily to an athlete. That didn’t stop Heather Miller from the Columbus High School class of 2005. She is going for the gold in a sport quite unfamiliar to most people. In fact, not many people can name off the top of their head what is included in the heptathlon even though Jackie Joiner Kersee became a household name for several Olympics.
The events in a heptathlon are 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m, long jump, javelin, and 800m. You may think this should be somewhere in a trivia game, but it is far from trivial to Heather Miller Koch.
When Heather Miller was growing up in her family of eight, she knew about hard work and she knew about sports, but she, like many of her peers, did not know about heptathlon. In middle school and high school, she loved basketball and she played softball as well, but her sister convinced her to try track and Marlin Hensler encouraged her to continue.
“I got started really late in life,” said the 28-year-old athlete. Apparently most women she competes against started by age 18 and some as young as ten or twelve. “I was in college at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud MN. As a two-sport athlete, I played basketball from September to March and outdoor track and field from April through May. I was recruited as a jumper and long sprinter (200/400m), so I just did those events.
When Heather got accepted to the nursing program, she knew she would be in school for five years and decided to red shirt her third outdoor track season after basketball. This is when she was first introduced to the heptathlon and fell in love with it.
“I was so intrigued and wanted to do the best that I could in it, so I decided to forgo my last season of eligibility in basketball to focus on track and heptathlon. I then had two full years of eligibility for both indoor (which I had never been able to participate in because of basketball) and outdoor track.”
Going from being a successful athlete in high school to being a two-sport athlete in college seemed a natural succession. Going from a basketball player to a world class heptathlete is a bit more complicated.
The support came from family and friends, but mostly from her college track coach Seth Mischke and her friend, teammate, and now husband Ryan Koch. “Ryan was an all-American in the decathlon and encouraged me to try it. I had never done these events before; I was a long jumper and a runner. I didn’t even have Olympic aspirations until after the Olympic trials in 2012. Going in to the trials, I was ranked 17 out of 20 girls that got accepted. I knew I wasn’t going to qualify for the games, but the trials were my Olympics.” The honor of competing against the best girls in the country was the end goal for her. The bonus was getting selected to represent team USA at an international competition in Germany. “It was at that meet that I got to wear the USA jersey and see what it was like to be a ‘professional’ athlete. It was then I got the drive to train four more years to make it to the ultimate stage of athletics that there is: the Olympics!”
This is just the beginning of the story, because from now until July 2016, hard work and sports will not only go hand in hand; it will be Miller-Koch’s sole focus. Since placing second in the Pan American Games held in Toronto in July, she has been accepted for funding to train through USOC. This has meant some big changes for her, but change and challenge suit her just fine. She has taken a leave of absence from her nursing position at Unity Hospital in St. Paul, MN for starters, and joined the ranks of athletes in full-time training.
Heather and Ryan have moved to Chula Vista, California to train at the United States Olympic Training Center. Athletes are given housing, meals, medical services, massage therapists, whirlpools, hot tubs, cold tubs, and even trainers. Her primary coach, however, is her husband Ryan.
Her support funding includes travel to meets while she is training as well. “The Olympic Training center is awesome! It is amazing to be training next to world class athletes who are working toward the same goal, to become an Olympian,” said Miller-Koch.
“A typical day for me consists of a big breakfast! I hit the track by ten and do a general warm up. These days, as I am getting older, that tends to be 45 minutes or so. I then get into some specific events with hurdles, high jump, shot put, long jump, or javelin. Sometimes I have a running workout or some explosive sled pulls/pushes. Other days I will do event work then head to the weight room. This always depends on which cycle I am at in my training. I sometimes break up the day with a light lunch and an hour break and then finish with another event or running workout. Three to six hours a day is spent at the track. Then a lot of time on recovery which consists of drinks, cool down runs/strides, stretching, and I love my muscle roller!” Miller-Koch adds that she likes to be in bed by 10 pm to be sure to get 8 or 9 hours of sleep.
With that schedule and the travel and now living far from her Midwestern roots, she doesn’t have much of a social life. She admits it isn’t always easy to miss things like birthday parties, weddings, and baby showers. She tries to stay connected with friends, but happy hours and cocktail parties were never part of her training and sleep schedule, and her travel has limited her participation.
With only three women going to the Olympics in Heptathlon she knows the challenges ahead. “The Olympic team for track and field is decided solely on our performance at the Olympic Team trials July 1st to the 10th. Placing in the top three will get me to Brazil in August.”
She also says it is all worth it. “The opportunities I have had, I could never have imagined,” said Miller. The experiences, the wonderful people I have met, and the places I have been able to go. Track opened up a whole new world for me. No matter what happens, I plan to be back to work as an operating room nurse in St. Paul MN and God willing, start a family with my husband.”
Heather never met Jackie Joyner Kersee, but says she is definitely a role model. In fact, in Heather’s opinion, she is the greatest female athlete of all time. “One of my favorite track memories, (and there are many) was at the 2012 Olympic trials. Right when we were about to toe the line I heard someone say, ‘Come on ladies, last event…here we go!’ I looked over to my right and there was Jackie standing right by the fence.”
Heather and Ryan will have exciting stories to tell their children and can be proud of how far they have come together. But for now we can all cheer her on and say, “Last event, here we go!”