By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Karlee Miller has to deal with the loss of a leg in addition to all of the other challenges that face teenage girls, but she tries to make the best of it.
She likes to let her T-shirts speak for her in regard to the missing leg. She has one that reads, “What are you looking at you two-legged freak” another states that the shirt “cost an arm and a leg.”
“But I got it for half price,” said Karlee with a smile and laugh.
Karlee’s left leg was amputated well above the knee at the age of 5 as the result of cancer that first infected her muscles and then moved to the bone. She’s been cancer-free for the past 11 years, but a combination of her own inner determination and a Nike sponsorship has her sights set on a lofty goal: competing in swimming events at the 2020 Paralympic Games.
Karlee discovered competitive swimming only few years back – and it wasn’t love at first lap.
“After the first day, I didn’t want to do it anymore. My parents had me keep trying and, eventually, I learned to enjoy it,” Karlee said.
She’d tried other sports from running to softball, but one call by a coach soured her on the idea of both of them.
“The coach pulled me out of the game when I was on base because he wanted a faster runner,” Karlee said. She quit softball in the middle of the season because the decision stung so much.
Karlee took up swimming about four years ago and began swimming competitively at 14. She had to figure out how to do it without the aid of prosthetic because, although there are models that are made for use in the water, the amputation left her with so little left of her leg that they were unusable for her. Competitive swimming led her to competing in open-water swims in Oregon’s Hagg Lake and in the open ocean off the beaches of San Diego where she’s completed lengths of one mile.
In 2015, Karlee’s pursuits led her to connect with a mentor in fellow amputee-athlete Sarah Reinertsen and then one of Nike’s sports managers, Lori Roth. That led to another challenge.
“One of them dared me to run the Nike Women’s Half-Marathon. At first, I kind of blew it off and then she came back and said I was locked in,” Karlee said.
She began panicking as the date neared and the realization sunk in that it was 13.1 miles through one of the hilliest urban terrains in the country.
“The night before it was all deep breaths,” Karlee said. “When I finished, Lori was shocked. I ended up being the youngest female amputee to finish that race.” Karlee still wears the pendant she received for finishing the challenge on a regular basis.
Not long after the half marathon, Karlee learned that Nike wanted to sponsor her. That news led her father, Steven, to put out a call on Facebook that a trainer was needed. Keizer’s Carlos Soto, owner of CS Defining Fitness, was tagged by another former client in the post and he offered his services.
“I reached out and I didn’t know she was an amputee. I didn’t know until we met and then it was, ‘Oh, whoa … that’s cool.’”
For the past year, the two have been training together and with Soto’s other clients in his River Road gym. But, it’s been a learning experience for Soto as well as Karlee.
The first time the pair got together, Steven accompanied them to McNary’s track so Soto could see her in action.
“Her dad would shout out voice cues to get her to run with the proper form. There’s a way she’s supposed to run and he had to teach me what to tell her. That helped me, having dad here for a while, and telling me to not baby her,” Soto said. “I’ve been melting her face ever since.”
Karlee said there is a mental hurdle to running that those with two legs would struggle to understand.
“I will swing my leg out when I’m not paying attention. It should go up and under more like a traditional runner but, in my head, I’m always thinking my toe will get stuck and I’ll trip and fall,” Karlee said.
Karlee has some load limits as far as what she is able to bear, but Soto has been able to adapt most of his exercises for her needs.
“She favors the amputation, but we are trying to get her hip flexor straight and it has improved a lot in the past year,” Soto said.
To assist in his ability to work with Karlee’s needs and desire to compete in the Paralympic Games, Soto has taken part in camps on the Nike campus tailored for amputees.
“Working out with them and picking their brains was huge,” Soto said. “I was able to ask one of the other coaches when she got over the mental block of running right and she said that it will click one day. So we just keep working at it.”
Along the way, Karlee rarely fails to impress. The first time Soto brought out a jump rope, Karlee left him agape. He took out his phone and started filming so others could see what she was capable of. He was also surprised to discover that her favorite workout music was rock from the 1970s.
Soto said he puts more thought into movement than many of his clients would guess, but working with Karlee has been a wholly new experience.
“I try to go over it and think about the mechanics of a knee and the exercises she will be able to do, but there are still times when we need to modify something on the day we try it,” Soto said.
For her part, kettle bell swings are the least favorite of the rigors Soto puts her through, but he rarely hears her complain about anything.
“She’s an inspiration with the drive she has. Most of my clients know her because I invite her to different group trainings and they watch her and get more motivated,” Soto said.
The immediate goal is the Paralympics, but she’s happy to have developed the relationship she has with Soto, especially since that other coach left such a welt on her pride.
“Carlos doesn’t baby me. He knows how to switch things up when they need to be, but he doesn’t use my leg as an excuse for anything,” Karlee said. “It’s just something we have to work around and that’s huge. It’s the way I want everyone to feel about it. It doesn’t make amputees weird, it’s just something we have to deal with.”