WAUPUN – Life is normal again. It has been for a while now, actually.
Sara Miller will don her black and gold leotard and be doing her part for the Waupun prep gymnastics team when it competes today at a WIAA Division 1 sectional meet in Waterford as a favorite to advance to state.
There will be smiles and laughs shared with teammates. There also will be moments of frustration.
It’s all part of being an athlete – enduring the highs and lows.
But for Miller – who will compete on the uneven bars and the balance beam – there is no low that can break her spirit. Simply competing in the sport she’s loved since she was 3 is a blessing trumped only by life itself.
Actually, gymnastics helped save her life and get her back on her feet again.
“If she wasn’t in that good of (physical) shape when she got in the accident,” said Miller’s dad Kurt, “(the doctors) said she probably wouldn’t have made it. She was in excellent shape when the accident happened, from gymnastics.”
“The accident” was a head-on car crash four and a half years ago on July 11, 2012.
It left Sara with her legs shattered and a fractured skull that required brain surgeons to lay the broken pieces of her skull on a table and piece them back together with plates and pins. It also left her on a respirator in a medically-induced coma for seven days to prevent brain swelling.
Would she be brain dead? Would she be paralyzed and spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair? Those thoughts raced through her parents’ minds.
They said not knowing if she’d ever be herself again – or even close to herself – scared them the most.
But Sara is herself. And once she was on the road to recovery, she never doubted that she would make it back to where she is today.
“I didn’t really picture my life without gymnastics,” she said, “because I had been in it my entire life.”
She nearly died, but she still is competing.
“It is a pretty amazing story,” Waupun head coach Jane Neevel said.
The terrible accident
It was a beautiful mid-July day, Kurt said. It was the middle of the afternoon, the roads were good, and alcohol or drugs were not a factor.
It was just one of those things that happens with no explanation.
Sara and Kurt were on their way to Oshkosh where Sara, who was 10 at the time, would practice as a member of the Oshkosh Gymnastics Center. They were driving on Highway 44 in Pickett when a woman in her 60s passed in a no-passing zone and collided head-on with the Dodge Caravan Kurt was driving.
“I was really steering hard to the left,” Kurt said of going into the oncoming lane of traffic to try and avoid the woman’s car. “I thought at the last second we were going to miss her – I really did.
“That was my last thought, and then we hit and I saw white and heard glass flying all over and heard screaming.”
Sara’s seat was pushed back about a foot from where it was supposed to be. Both she and Kurt were pinned underneath the smashed-in dashboard.
“I couldn’t see anything for about 10, 15 seconds. It was like something was in my eyes, but it wasn’t – I was just kind of blacked out, but I was conscious,” Kurt said. “I could hear everything, and when I opened my eyes, (Sara) was crying and she had a big hole in her head. And blood was – it wasn’t shooting out, but it was welling out. I had to cover her head with my hand.”
Sara doesn’t remember anything from the accident.
“I only remember being in the hospital and … having to recover from (the injuries),” she said.
They were extricated from the car with the Jaws of Life and Sara was put on a Flight for Life to St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay.
Before that, though, Kurt said they were “really lucky in a lot of ways.”
Imagine watching your house start on fire with no means of putting it out, when just by chance a fire truck pulls by and all but a few meaningless items are saved.
That’s pretty much what happened to Sara and Kurt that day of the accident.
“It was probably five minutes, or something like that, and a lady stopped – she was on her way to Oshkosh with her husband (for an eye doctor appointment), and she was a nurse,” Kurt said. “And so she did some initial – she didn’t have anything with her, but some initial first-aid.”
Her name is Sheila Engel and she helped control the bleeding from Sara’s forehead.
She and her husband played an integral part in keeping Sara conscious by asking her questions about her pets.
“And (Sara) was answering questions that were right. She gave the dog’s name and how many cats we had and their names. I don’t know how she ever did that – but between the crying and the blood, she was answering their questions,” said Kurt, who suffered a broken leg and several cuts from the glass.
Asked now what she’d have thought then if she was told that Sara would someday compete in gymnastics again, Sheila said, “I don’t know how to say it in words. A miracle?”
“It’s amazing,” Engel added. “When I saw her legs, I never thought she’d do that again.”
Engel’s arrival on the scene wasn’t Sara’s and Kurt’s only stroke of good luck, though – not long after, an off-duty group of paramedics driving an ambulance back to La Crosse stopped.
“So we had paramedics way sooner than we should have,” Kurt said. “They did blood transfusions right there to get (Sara’s) blood pressure back up.”
The first-aid and emergency surgeries were just the beginning.
Before Sara came out of the coma, she was transported by Med Flight to UW Children’s Hospital. Eventually, she started rehabilitating her legs so she could walk and run again.
And it turns out she’d have something to brighten her spirits in the early stages of rehab, too.
Since the accident happened in the mid-summer of 2012, the Summer Olympics in London were taking place during the tail-end of Sara’s stay in the hospital. That meant that Sara got to watch the USA Women’s Gymnastics team – The Fab Five, as they became known – on TV.
“It made me happy and more determined to recover faster,” Sara said, “because it reminded me of being in the gym and how much I wanted to be there.”
Aly Raisman – Sara’s favorite of the Fab Five – Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross, and McKaya Maroney won gold that summer.
Watching them was an inspiration.
Sara’s mom Lori said, “She said to my husband, ‘When we were going to gymnastics (before the accident), my grips were in my bag in the van – do you think you could go to the (junkyard where the van is) and get those?’”
“When she asked for that… then you knew that she was not going to quit,” Lori added.
Road back to the gym begins
Not only didn’t Sara quit, she worked harder than ever.
It took until early August for Sara to get out of the hospital, but when school started in early September, she was walking. She still used a wheelchair at school to make things easier, but she was back on her feet.
All that was left was intensive rehab. She was thin and weak, making simple things like showering and getting dressed challenges.
Not long into the process, she was back going to Oshkosh Gymnastics Center for physical therapy.
“She went back and did abs stuff and legs stuff and arms stuff, without the tumbling,” said Kurt, who encouraged her to go to gymnastics for rehab because he knew she would push herself harder there and also because “it brought some normalcy back to her life.”
“It helped me really be happy,” Sara said of seeing her friends on a regular basis.
By the time the 2013 gymnastics season kicked off in October, Sara was competing.
Sara transferred from Oshkosh Gymnastics Center to the Waupun GymStars program – the youth program run by Neevel and her daughter, Warriors’ assistant coach Emily Engelhardt – for the 2014-15 season. But another hurdle emerged in 2015-16, when in the first meet on a dismount during warm-ups on the beam, Sara broke the only major bones in her legs – the lower left leg and ankle – that she hadn’t already broke.
All the way back
Sara nearly died, and still returned to the gym. A much-less severe setback wasn’t going to keep her down.
Sara has the most no-fall beam routines on a team that based on season-best scores has a really good chance at taking second – the top two advance – and returning to state after last year’s first-ever state berth in program history.
She’s one of the easiest to coach, too.
“She’s very quiet and she works very hard,” Neevel said. “We have lesson plans, and she makes sure she gets through every part of her lesson plan.”
“You don’t need to tell her to get to work, ever,” Engelhardt said.
Maybe that’s because being in the gym isn’t work to her. Work was fighting for her life and re-learning how to walk.
She occasionally has some aches and pains as a result of the accident, and there are still tiny pins and plates in her skull that might eventually need to be removed.
She also has permanent scars on her legs, and tiny pieces of glass lodged in her skin that now and then work their way out on their own.
They’re all small prices to pay.
Life is good.
“Because,” Sara said, “I realize how special it is to actually be alive.”