Para Nordic SkiingNews

Grace Miller On How She Went From A Paralympic Nordic Skier To Aspiring Healthcare Hero

by Lisa Costantini

Grace Miller looks on after competing at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 9, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

Most people at 23 years old are just starting to figure out what they want to do with their lives. But not Chinese-born Grace Miller. Despite two Paralympics under her belt for Team USA, Miller knew she was ready to retire from competitive Nordic skiing after competing at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.

Having been on skis since the age of four, it was becoming apparent that the immense dedication, rigorous training, and pursuit of excellence required to excel as a Team USA athlete was consuming a significant portion of her life. The moment she stepped away from her competitive career, she found the freedom that came with it. 

“I have so much free time now,” Miller shared, who still spends most of her time outside being active. With her schedule now wide open, she was able to explore another career path that she had always been passionate about — healthcare.

Born without a left forearm, Miller got to know her way around hospitals from a young age and it was there that she realized that she had a unique perspective that allowed her to connect with patients who face similar challenges. 

“I like being able to help people,” Miller said. Her mother, who is a nurse, played a significant role in shaping her interest in the medical field.

While attending the University of Alaska — where she graduated with a degree in biology — she started working as a certified nurse aide in a surgery center. She recognized that her background as a Team USA athlete equipped her with valuable skills that serve her well in the field — performing well under pressure is one of them.

Her athletic background will also help her with her application for physician assistant school, where she has applied to six schools. 

“Being a Team USA athlete has made my application so much stronger because I already know what it’s like to be driven,” she said. “The competition is strong and I’ll have to stand out amongst the thousands of people applying. They’ll whittle that number down to around 50 people to interview with only half of them getting accepted. I already have three interviews, which will start happening in November,” said Miller.

Growing up in Palmer, Alaska, where she moved after being adopted from China at age three, her dream is to one day work in rural, underserved communities. “I don’t want to go into a metropolitan city,” she shared. “I want to go someplace like my hometown.” 

She currently lives in Montana, as the U.S. Paralympic ski team is based out of Bozeman. While she is open to moving for school, her top three choices would have her living in Washington, Oregon or California. “My goal is to stick in the Pacific Northwest,” she revealed.

Grace Miller competes at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on April 6, 2023 in Zhangjiakou, China. (Photo by Mark Reis)

In light of October being National Disability Employment Awareness Month — which commemorates the many contributions of people with disabilities to America's workplaces and economy — her hope is to utilize such representation as a source of inspiration for others and a catalyst for altering perceptions. “I want to show people that if you set your mind to something, you can do it,” she said. “I really believe in the ‘If there’s a will, there’s a way.’ Just for me, it might take me a little bit longer to figure out how to do it with one hand.”

She certainly hasn’t let it slow her down. Even in retirement, she has not lost her zest for adventure, having recently completed a 50K foot race with little to no training ahead of time. 

“I definitely miss being able to push myself to the max, but I’m still super active,” said Miller. “The one thing I worried about retiring was losing a part of myself. But I feel like I’ve found more parts of myself that I’ve been able to learn about, and that’s been exciting.”

While she acknowledged that the camaraderie of being on a team was nice, she’s looking forward to putting the spotlight on someone besides herself for a change. “Being a professional athlete, a lot of it is about yourself — thinking about your own race results, your own training,” Miller said. Now her work will be centered around helping others, which aligns with her innate desire to make a positive impact on people’s lives. “I’m excited to change the focus to someone else.”

The constant pressure to always be number one was another factor that led to her need for a break. “That was a lot of mental strain for me,” she shared. Having competed at her first Paralympics at age 18, and finishing after her second at 23, those years shaped her into the person she is today. “I now know how to work hard and stick with a plan.”

That’s not to say that her decision to retire at such a young age came without doubts. Her coaches, like many others, questioned her. They believed that she had more years of competition ahead. However, her decision was rooted in her desire for a fulfilling career in healthcare, which she has aspired to since childhood. She acknowledged the “what if” scenario of continuing her athletic career but remains steadfast in her belief that her future in healthcare is the right path. 

“At the end of the day, being a competitive athlete is not one of my passions. I enjoyed my time on the team, but I think working in healthcare and helping people will make me a lot happier overall,” Miller said. “But who knows, I’m young. I can always go back!”

Lisa Costantini has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than a decade, including for the International Olympic Committee. She is a freelance writer who has contributed to since 2011.