On September 28, 2022, President Joe Biden hosted the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. The President and his administration have established five pillars to define the scope of goals to improve the overall health and well-being of the citizens of the United States.
In addition to the President himself, there were several speakers who shared their thoughts and expertise on the issues at hand. Among them was Kari Miller-Ortiz, who serves as Move United's director of people and culture. Move United works to make people more active in sports, regardless of their ability. Miller-Ortiz expressed that the moment was distressing due to the changes in both her speech and the time she had allowed to speak.
"I'm not the type to say no, so I was like, 'Okay, I'm going to do this.'"
Miller-Ortiz rose to the occasion and represented her organization and the American people well. Most people would have found this situation a challenging form of adversity, but Miller-Ortiz has done so many times, and she has endured greater forms of adversity than speaking publicly. The US Army veteran had been preparing for this when she made the decision to join the military. The inspiration for this came from her family members like her single mother who worked as a detective and her aunt who had served in the army during Operation Desert Storm.
"I did not want to [her mom] college," Miller-Ortiz said. "The opportunity arose and I joined the army."
Unfortunately, her career aspirations in the army came to an end in 1999. When she came home for vacation, she had been on missions in places like Bosnia. While on vacation and out with friends, she was involved in a car accident with a drunk driver.
"I remember sitting 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 power pole had fallen on the car. When the paramedics showed up, they cut off the roof of the car. They then determined the only way to get Miller-Ortiz out of the vehicle was to amputate both 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 unconscious and cut off my legs right at the scene.”
A helicopter would take Miller-Ortiz to a local hospital. Her mother was initially told that she had indeed died in the accident. When her aunt broke the news, Miller-Ortiz said she knew better.
"She said, ', 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, ', she's here.'"
The driver of the car Miller-Ortiz was in died, another passenger sustained back and neck injuries, and another passenger escaped unharmed. Miller-Ortiz found her way to get ahead, and she credited her family for helping her during this time in her life, including her mother, aunt, and uncle.
She found another way to advance through sports and fitness. Describing herself as a tom-boy as a child, she mentioned playing soccer with the boys in the streets of her neighborhood and she has the proof to get in on it.
"I have all kinds of injuries and scars from it," she said proudly. "I also played basketball. I was pretty much an athlete.”
Miller-Ortiz lives with prosthetic legs, but was offered a chance to play wheelchair basketball. At first she didn't feel comfortable because she can walk, but she eventually tried and was quickly humbled.
"I grew up playing basketball, so I thought I was a baller. I rolled up to take a free throw and that ball went nowhere. This little girl grabbed it, went in and got a layup.”
Despite this, Miller-Ortiz fell in love with the sport and continued playing. She improved tremendously and played at the college level for the University of Illinois. Miller-Ortiz even got an opportunity to try for Team USA in 2007.
"You have to be the best of the best to get this opportunity," she shared. "I was like, 'Damn, yes!'"
Miller-Ortiz did her best, but she wasn't picked for the team. Then she switched to wheelchair volleyball, where she would see her greatest success as an athlete. After going to Atlanta to play for the first time, she began working with coach Michael Hulett, who was also a quad amputee. He had neither hands nor legs.
“Once he was one of the best volleyball players in the world. He was amazing," Miller-Ortiz said. She admitted she's never played volleyball, but she tried it in the Paralympics anyway. She missed the cut on her first try, but she made the team on the next try. From then on, success grew.
"I was named the best defensive specialist in the world," she said. Her team won silver at the 2007 Paralympic Games and has continued to earn bronze and silver medals ever since. She was also named Paralympian of the Year in 2009. Her career high point came in 2016 when her team won gold at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her team was 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 began working with the US Paralympic Military Program where she started new programs for injured Soldiers at Walter Reed, Bethesda Naval and Fort Belvoir. She also made her way into coaching by serving as a seated volleyball coach for Army and Air Force teams for wounded, ill and injured athletes.
"This community is often overlooked," she explained. Move United is the largest adaptive organization in America. Their mission is to give people with disabilities the opportunity to participate in sports. Miller-Ortiz can relate to the people she serves as both an adaptable citizen and a sports enthusiast. One of her missions is to raise awareness about adaptive sports and share ways 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, athletic accomplishments, and professional service, Miller-Ortiz has made many great strides to help adaptive athletes, and even beginners, learn more about themselves and feel that same sense of community. She's proud to be part of the adaptive community and she has connections that will last a lifetime.
"Because I'm an adult and some of these kids are 16 years old, some from Kansas, some from Hawaii or other places, there's no way I would have had a shared experience with these people that I'm having today. But now that I've been through this, I have weddings and kids to buy gifts for. It's a family.” For more information on Move United, visit www.moveunitedsport.org.