She doesn’t remember his name, but Erin Miller can thank a former American Olympian for setting her on the path to competitive swimming.
At age 10, the former Vernon resident had a one-day chance encounter with him while her seafaring family was visiting her grandfather, who then worked as a professor at Ross University on the tiny Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. It was shortly after the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and Miller, now 25, was determined to emulate the powerful butterfly technique she had been so impressed with on TV.
“I went to the (university) pool and swam for hours and hours,” recalled Miller. “I was trying to do it on my own and I was probably just drowning.”
That’s when she met the American, who happened to be one of her grandfather’s students. But after a one-day crash course in butterfly, she was once again left to her own devices as her family – parents Anne and Don, older brother Kyle and younger sister Robin – spent the next several years sailing the Caribbean and beyond.
“They decided they wanted to go travelling for two years and ended up being gone for 20,” said Miller, of her parents, who sold their chain of pet stores in the Edmonton area to set sail.
Miller, who was born on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, added: “After that, as we were travelling, I would just swim around the boat on my own, doing my own thing.”
Eventually, the Millers settled in Vernon in 2000, and shortly after Erin joined the Vernon Kokanee Swim Club. She spent the next four years training with the club, first under coach Bruce Melton, and later with head coach Claude (Cyb) Yves Bertrand. She graduated from Vernon Secondary’s high performance program in 2004, and then headed off to swim with the UBC Dolphins and pursue a degree in human kinetics and health sciences.
Disaster struck in October 2008, during Miller’s third year with the club. During a routine practice session, she collided with a boy swimming the other direction in her lane. The result was a badly torn rotator cuff.
Inoperable, the injury forced Miller to spend an entire year away from the sport to focus on rehabbing her shoulder, with no guarantee she would ever return to the pool. She credits her physician (Dr. Janet McKeown) and physiotherapist (Ron Mattison), both Lower Mainland professionals, for helping her stay positive during a bleak situation.
“They said I only had a 50-50 chance of being able to swim again,” said Miller.
“You just have to take it day by day and try to stay positive, which is challenging when you go from being able to do everything to nothing. I went from training so much to not being able to do anything – not being able to lift my arm, not being able to talk on a cell phone in my right hand.
“I was very focussed on coming back and being able to swim again. That was the plan.”
When it came time to test her healed shoulder in the pool, it was equally slow going.
“I started by doing 100 metres a day, which is nothing when you do 6,000 a workout,” smiled Miller.
However, after her hiatus, and with only limited training time, Miller competed in both spring and summer nationals in 2010, achieving several personal bests. By that time, she had switched schools, following former UBC coach Richard Millns to the University of Alberta Golden Bears.
At last summer’s Nations Cup – an international meet featuring Canada, France, Australia and Brazil – she finished second in the 200-m fly.
“That was a big ‘Oh. I can do this again.’ Before that, it was like ‘I’ll take my time, try my best and see what happens because I can’t guarantee that my body can deal with this,’” said Miller.
“There’s always a lot of fear after you’ve been injured. I was afraid if I did too much I would aggravate it, especially in the weight room.”
At this year’s summer nationals, Miller clocked three PBs, won two silver medals and set an Alberta record for the 100-m fly. She followed that by earning fourth in the 100-m fly, fifth in the 200-m fly at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Miller was also part of the silver-medal winning Canadian women’s 4×100 medley relay team
She and teammates Gabrielle Soucisse of Montreal, Ashley McGregor of Pointe-Claire, Que. and Jennifer Beckberger of Ajax, Ont. wore Mexican luchador wrestling masks before the final.
“It was just our way of giving back to the crowd because they’ve been so supportive of us the whole time,” Miller told Canadian Press. “We embraced the Mexican culture and just showed them that we love their country, that it’s a great place.”
Now, fully mended and brimming with renewed confidence, Miller will turn her attention on the upcoming Olympic trials this spring in Montreal. This will be her third crack at it, having already competed at 2004 and ‘08 trials.
“We’re (Canadian butterfly swimmers) all going to be physically fit so it’s going to come down to mental and who is going to be at the top level at that time. We’re all extremely close. It’s going to come down to who can do their perfect race at that time. Swimming is a one-shot deal.”