Monday, June 15, 2020

Interview with Paula Miller: On Ice Hockey, Ice Swimming, and Finding "Alternatives to Traditional Sports and Feminine Activities"

Name: Paula Miller
Sports: Marathon and ice swimming, but I spent about 6 years mountain biking, 4 years rock-climbing, 11 years men's and women's ice hockey
Age: 48
Occupation: Archaeologist
Location: Lancaster, PA

Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival, Newport, CT
Water Temp: 30-31 degrees F
"The water literally freezes behind you as you swim. Ice
shards are skimmed from the surface between each race."

How did you begin participation in sports?
I think I learned to swim before I could walk. I joined the York YWCA Blue Dolphins in 8th grade and then swam for York Suburban High School.

How did you make the transition from pool swimming to open water/ice swimming?
One day, I was bored and began perusing the personals on Craigslist (what in the world was I thinking???). Under "Platonic Only," I found an ad posted by two guys—a biker and a runner—who were looking for a swimmer to join their relay team for the Philly Triathlon. So that was my very first open water swim—800 meters or whatever a sprint distance is—in the Schuylkill River. It never crossed my mind beforehand that open water might be different than a pool—I just got in the water and swam. It was fun, but I didn't really think about open water again until about eight years later when one of my Lancaster masters buddies (now my "swim husband") talked me into doing an open water race with him. Neither of us remember which race that was.

As for ice swimming, sometime around 2012 I ran across a video online of an ice swimming event, maybe in Russia. I remember showing my boyfriend (now my real husband) the video and excitedly telling him that I needed try that. He was not impressed. Fast forward about 5 years—I met Louise Darlington in the spring and I just never stopped swimming that year—she gave me a proper intro to cold water swimming. The water kept getting colder and we just kept swimming.

What is your most vivid memory of your sports career?
Playing hockey on the 1980 Olympic rink in Lake Placid—the "Miracle" rink. And going bobsledding afterwards with my team. The 1980 Olympic Rink is so insanely iconic—it was the gold medal game—US vs. the Soviet Union. The Soviets had taken gold in 4 or 5 of the previous Olympics, and the US team had young, inexperienced, college-level players. The US were complete underdogs, at home. And we won! It was the Miracle on Ice—easily one of the top sports moments of the 20th century. It was just incredibly cool to be in that arena and skate on that same ice. Plus, I was there with the most incredible teammates in the world. It was just a magical time and place.

How did you get interested in playing hockey?
Annapolis Rocks
along the AT near Frederick, MD 
One day after I had moved back to PA from grad school, my boyfriend got this idea that him and I, along with his brother, cousin, and a few of his friends, should start playing street hockey to get in shape. I was lucky if I'd ever even seen a hockey game, few of us were in any shape to be trying this, and I was the only one in the group who knew how to skate. We rounded up some make-shift equipment from Play it Again and raided neighbor's curbside trash, and went out to the local street hockey rink, where there was already a game in progress. The guys were all young, fast, and on skates. They let us join them and promptly kicked our butts. My boyfriend, after taking some heat for his poor performance in net, threw off his equipment and challenged someone else to suit up. One by one, we all tried it, with not much better success. I took my turn and surprised everyone by actually being "not that bad at all."

So, I went home and found a women's league to play in. It took some convincing, but I finally talked the head of the league into giving me a chance even though I had no experience or skills training. I played my first game with my leg pads on the wrong legs because I didn't even know how to get dressed. Every shot went in the net—I had no clue what I was doing. After that first summer season though, I started playing in a men's pick-up game on Friday nights, and next thing you know, I was playing every day, sometimes 2-3 times a day. For a few years, I was playing in two different women's leagues, going to open hockey over lunchtime, tending net for early morning clinics coached in Russian, playing men's pick-up, and subbing in men's league games.

Who are the people who have most supported or influenced your athletic career and how have they influenced or supported you?
My dad was always my loudest supporter and critic in swimming, but he passed away before I really started doing anything else. He would've loved it all, especially the hockey. My mom has always been my steadfast supporter no matter what madness I get myself into.

Why do you continue to participate in sports? Or why have you discontinued participation?
Hands down, no matter the sport: friends and road trips. I'm also not good at sitting still. I had to stop playing hockey when I moved back to central PA—no opportunities at my level. I miss it.

What are three words you’d use to describe your athletic body?
Strong, big, still big

What are your sports goals and/or what do you foresee happening with your sporting career in the future?
Open water swimming and cold water swimming is growing in leaps and bounds. This COVID thing is making training for long swims difficult. I have no idea where the winds of sport will take me. I'd love to return to ice hockey.

8-Mile Charles Bender Memorial Swim in Schulykill River
Is there anything else you’d like to say that isn’t covered above?
To this day, I don't identify as an athlete. I was just awful at traditional sports growing up. I was always the last person picked, and the first person picked on. I hated gym class with all my life. I was also forbidden to take dance, baton, and gymnastics. I think this poor athletic start in life set me on a path to find alternatives to traditional sports and female activities. In middle school, looking something like a cross between Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, I started skateboarding on this banana board I picked up for 50 cents at a yard sale. I finally got a real skateboard in high school and started skating half-pipes and pools. Skating transitioned to surfing and bodyboarding, and finally mountain biking, at least until my bike was stolen. That was all in high school, while I was trying to get through the bullshit of the high school swim team. When I left high school, I was happy to put swimming behind me—it never crossed my mind to swim in college. It took me over 10 years to even think about getting back in a pool. Anyhow, whatever I am, I'm having fun now, and I have some of the best friends I could ever ask for.

I wish more women would just go for it. So many times, women have said to me, "I wish I could do what you do." The thing is, they CAN. I was literally the last person picked for a team in gym class my entire school career. If you want to do something, go do it. Give yourself a chance. Explore. Be limitless.


Questions for Paula about her sports career? Please comment below!


This interview is part of the Thigh Flasher Athletes Who Inspire Me Interview Series. Contact me if you’d like to share your story as a sportswoman or nominate another sportswoman who has inspired you to get fit, compete, and or live a healthier lifestyle.

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