What began as an effort to avoid physical education class without having to do much running has turned into a ticket to the Ivy League for Lake Forest High School's Matt Miller.
While that attitude may bespeak laziness, Miller is anything but. Put an obstacle before him and he sees an opportunity.
- He had no problem with gym class. He wanted an extra study hall.
- At age 7, he underwent neck surgery that effected his coordination so much that a former friend said he could not be a successful athlete.
“I wanted to show him (the former friend) he was wrong,” Miller said. “He said I wouldn’t be good at anything.”
Miller chose track because he had some bulk and felt throwing was where he could prove his detractor wrong. “I didn’t want to run much (either),” he added.
After a freshman season where he was not pleased with his effort, he saw another opportunity. That disappointment turned him into the nation’s No. 4 ranked competitive weight lifter for his weight and age.
“I was OK as a freshman. I wanted to get better,” Miller said describing a toss of 40 feet in the shot put and a heave of 110 feet in the discus. “I lifted over the summer and continued all year. I lifted a lot. It helped me get where I am.”
Miller did not just receive a lifting regimen from Scout coach Denis Sheeran and work out in the Lake Forest weight room. He found the WCS Gattone gym in Buffalo Grove and Roger Nielson as his coach. Nielson was the head weight lifting coach for the 2008 U.S. Olympic team in Beijing.
The effort paid off. By the time Miller’s sophomore season ended, he was the frosh-soph record holder in both events. He also zoomed near the top of the weight lifting rankings with a 220-pound snatch and a 280 clean and jerk. Both are Olympic events.
A year later as a junior, Miller was tossing the shot 15 feet further than he did as a freshman and the discus was sailing 155 feet, or a 40-foot improvement. At the same time he moved to fourth place in the country in his junior weight lifting class hefting a 275-pound snatch and a 330 clean and jerk.
A senior heading to Brown University in the fall, Miller has already thrown beyond the state qualifying standard in the shot put and discus. He also set the school record April 11 in a dual meet against Lake Zurich with a toss of 58-3.
“I was pumped. I was screaming for 30 seconds running up and down the track,” Miller said of his exuberance after setting the school mark.
His next goal is to surpass the 19-year-old school discus standard of 167-4 set by Mike Giometti. Miller’s best is 167.
Sheeran believes the energy Miller demonstrated when he set the record is one of his strengths when it is under control. Part of his job as a coach was working with his star thrower to channel his motivation in a productive direction.
“He had to manage that,” Sheeran said of Miller’s intensity. “He’s changed a lot since he was a freshman. He has learned how to act. He will set the school discus record. He’s already shown he has the will.”
Miller’s determination has resulted in a 4.85 grade point average and a 33 score on his American College Test (ACT). The extra study hall has paid off. After looking at several college opportunities, he narrowed the choice to Brown and the University of Pennsylvania, both Ivy League institutions.
“They were very comparable, but Brown felt right,” Miller said.
He credits Bear throwing coach Michelle Eisenreich with helping his decision process as well as former Scout sprinter Sam Howard. Howard is a freshman on the Brown team.
“I talked to him (Howard) a little,” Miller said. “Coach Eisenreich is going to be better for me. She can help me do what I want.”
Miller already feels a debt to his future coach. Though he has Olympic weight lifting potential, he plans to concentrate on throwing at Brown for the next four years.
“That’s what got me into school,” Miller said. “She (Eisenreich) has put her faith in me.”
Miller will be on track to graduate college in 2015, so the 2016 Olympics remain a possibility as a weight lifter.
Miller first had obstacles to overcome when he was born with an enlarged top vertebra in his neck that severely limited his coordination.
“My cerebellum could not develop,” Miller said of the need for the operation. “I couldn’t catch a baseball or a football in the back yard until I was 10 or 11.”
Still, he considers himself fortunate despite wearing leg braces until he was 15.
“I was lucky," he said. "Most of the kids with my condition can barely walk.”