She’s already got a Paralympic gold and two silvers. So why is Nichole Millage putting herself through the physical and mental wringer for a shot at one last medal? At 43 years old, she wasn’t a lock to make the roster even before the pandemic. And after 11 months away from her team and her training facility, she’s facing more uncertainty than ever. Solo training and virtual team camps only go so far. Here’s what keeps Millage going. Our conversation is edited for length.

When we connected on email, you mentioned this has been a tough time emotionally with respect to the Games. Tell me what’s going on.
Everyone has obviously all their own mixed feelings about everything that’s happened. For me personally, it’s been rough because 2020 was going to be my last year and I just wanted to make sure that I made the roster. I was in peak condition last March, and then it kind of all just came crashing down. Obviously I still have the same concerns and worries as before, but now I’ve spent almost a year of not playing with my team and not playing any kind of volleyball. Definitely nothing close to what we were doing last March.

I’m going to be 44 in a couple of months. I already felt like I was barely hanging on as far as keeping up with the younger players. And now I’m not physically where I was. So all those things are scary. It could be overwhelming and all-consuming if I allowed it to be. I try to not allow that.

Judging from social media, it looks to me like the team has only gotten together once since last spring, when you had to shut everything down. Is that correct?
Yep, we’ve only had one camp. It was the week before Thanksgiving, and I had had some possible exposure [to COVID] at work. So I ended up not going to that camp. I was supposed to go. I had a plane ticket. But a couple days before, because of that possible exposure—I didn’t understand why we were having a camp a few days before Thanksgiving and before the start of the holidays. There were all these mixed emotions, so at the last minute I decided not to go.

The camp ended up going down fine, except a couple of girls did end up getting COVID. Their families had to drive all the way to Oklahoma to come get them. They couldn’t get on an airplane. So I felt like I kind of made the right decision.

Well, for sure. And then everyone who was at the camp, if they were planning to have Thanksgiving with their families afterwardthey’d potentially been exposed by the two players who tested positive.
Exactly. So that was kind of why Bill [Hamiter], our coach, didn’t feel ready to have camp in mid-January. He decided last minute to cancel that one and said he just didn’t feel like it was time yet, with cases as high as they were. So he canceled January camp. I just got my plane ticket for February camp. And as far as I understand things, unless something major happens, we’re gonna have that camp. I fly out February 17th. We’re all getting there a day earlier than usual, because we’re doing COVID testing and stuff.

I’ve talked with some athletes who compete in individual events, and it seems like they can train to one degree or another. It’s not the caliber of training they would like, but they can at least try to simulate a normal training routine. Given that this is a team event, are you able to find players to practice with so you can keep your timing and that sort of thing?
No. I’m pretty much on my own. It was hard enough to make that happen before COVID, and it’s definitely not happening during COVID. The only thing I’ve been able to do is some drills with my trainer. I go do strength training with them twice a week, and then we do some stuff where basically I just get my hands on the ball and set and pass and do stuff like that. But when it comes to volleyball, sitting volleyball specifically, I can’t even come close to the same level training that I get with the team.

Is anyone on the team able to have any degree of game-readiness in their training? Or is everybody in a similar position to where you are?
There are girls that are living in Oklahoma at our training site, like I used to do. They just resumed training yesterday [February 1] after having a few months off. So they’re able to train together. I’m not sure how many girls are living there currently, but it’s probably almost half of our team.

We have been having virtual camps every once in a while, so I’m getting to see everybody that way at least.

What occurs during a virtual camp? Are you doing actual physical drills, or is it all sort of strategy sessions?
Those are varied quite a bit each time. Sometimes it could consist of our team nutritionist going over some stuff that she would normally go over at a regular camp, and then we’re all making some kind of lunch together at the same time. So we already have all the stuff prepped, and we’re all cooking together, and then we’re all showing off our dishes. So that’s fun. We actually did a cooking challenge every week for a while.

We have a new sports psychologist. So this last camp we were introduced to him, and he had some little things that he wanted us to do together as a team to get us thinking. And so we’ll do stuff like that. There’s been a couple of times where we’ve all exercised together. And we all read that book, Wolfpack. Are you familiar with that book?

I’m not.
It’s by Abby Wambach, the soccer player. It’s a motivational book about what she’s learned. It’s a very short, condensed book, and each chapter is a different lesson about what she learned playing her sport, retiring from her sport, just all the lessons along the way. Each chapter’s only a few pages long, and during each virtual camp we’d kind of dissect those chapters one or two at a time.

I just Googled her. It looks like she basically went out on top in the last World Cup. That’s pretty directly applicable to the effort you’re making.
Oh, yeah, for sure. She had a lot of good insight as to what it’s like to go from being a key player on the team and playing at your best, then transitioning into knowing that you’re no longer a starting player and dealing with those feelings, and being the person that pumps up the rest of your team and gives them the energy they need from the sideline. So there’s a lot of information in there that’s really stuck with me.

What are you hearing in terms of getting back into competition prior to the Paralympics? I know Team USA is already qualified, so you don’t have to play your way in. But how will you be trying to round the team back into form and get used to playing together again?
There was supposed to be a World Cup last May or June, and that got postponed. All it says on our schedule right now is that it’s tentatively scheduled for April, but there’s been no set date on it. That’s supposed to be in China. Normally we host a team in March when we’re in Denver, but we’re not even doing that this year. We’re just having camp in Oklahoma. At the end of May, Memorial Day weekend, we usually host a country at Opens [ie, the US Volleyball Open National Championship], and this year it looks like Canada scheduled to come in.

I’m curious if you feel the pandemic is affecting all countries equally. Like, do we know if the Chinese team [who Team USA played in the gold-medal match at the last three Paralympics] is in a better position to keep their players together and train than Team USA?
Well, China’s team actually changed a lot over the past few years. They’re not quite at the same level they used to be. But we have no idea at all where China’s at with their training. They don’t have Facebook, so you can’t get any kind of idea as far as what they’re even doing. Our biggest competition the last couple of years has been Russia. Some of them do have Facebook, but I haven’t been able to tell if they’re back to training or not. And they still don’t even know if they get to compete in the Paralympics [because of doping-related sanctions against Russian athletes]. There are just a lot of unknowns, and everything is still so completely up in the air. Maybe you saw the rumor that came out a week or two ago about how the Olympics and Paralympics were gonna get canceled? I don’t even want to see that kind of thing. I don’t even want to talk about it. It puts all kinds of mixed emotions in my head. If they’re gonna call it, just call it now, alright? 

Has there ever been a point where you thought you might be better off just moving on?
I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t entered my mind. You know, I’m like, “What am I doing? Am I making the right choice?” But at the same time, I want to see my teammates, and I want to just see how it goes. I wanna see where my skill level is and how my body’s feeling and all those things before I would make a decision like that. Because the goal hasn’t changed. I would still love to end my career in Tokyo.

I just want a chance to play the best volleyball that I can play. But I’m also realistic. There are younger, better people right now, and the right people are out there that need to be out there. I just wanna be ready for when it’s my turn. All I can control is the work and the effort that I put into it.

Road to Tokyo: Previous Interviews

Melissa Stockwell Stays the Course (Feb 3)
Hunter Woodhall Gets Back to Business (Jan 27)
Nichole Millage Is Proud to Be a Paralympian (Jun 17, 2020)
Allen Armstrong Soldiers On (Jun 10, 2020)
MeiMei White Video (Mar 4, 2020)