As the US Women’s Sitting Volleyball team reassembled this spring after more than a year apart, one of the younger stars took to calling Nichole Millage “Mom.” It’s a gesture of playful respect—a poke at Millage’s age (she’s 43), but also a recognition of her central role in the family. Having helped Team USA win two silvers and a gold over the last 15 years, Millage is uniquely positioned to provide encouragement and enforce discipline as needed. Just like a mom, right? Some of her teammates were still in grade school when she won her first Paralympic medal in 2008; her mere presence on the court or the bench can be comforting in tense situations. As old pros like Tom Brady and LeBron James have recently proved, poise and experience still count for an awful lot in sports.
Those are the core assets Millage is offering in her bid to make the roster for a fourth and final Paralympics. She’s had them on display during the flurry of training camps the sitting volleyball team has held this year as it shakes off a year’s worth of pandemic rust. We talked to Millage last week, on the eve of yet another weekend of practice; our conversation is edited for clarity.
The team has been very busy since the last time we spoke.
We had February camp, and then we had March camp barely two weeks later. I hadn’t done that type of high-intensity workout in a year, so I was definitely feeling the aches and pains. But it was so much fun to be out there playing again and get back that sense of excitement.
On an individual level, do you feel like you’ve accomplished what you need to do so far in terms of securing a roster spot?
The whole roster thing is tricky because I’m going into too much detail. There are a lot of different variables on this team, and that was true even before things got so extended [by the postponement]. We still have one tournament this year where players can get classified if they haven’t already, so there are a lot of what-ifs. At times it’s super stressful and gives me a lot of anxiety. I would love more than anything to finish out my career in Tokyo, but I’m trying really hard to just control what I can control.
Aside from training camps, what opportunities will you have to make your case?
The end of May is National Opens, and Canada is supposed to come in that weekend, and we’re going to scrimmage against them. There’s also a tournament in the Netherlands at the beginning of July. That’s the one where players can still get classified.
So theoretically, the roster might not be set until just a few weeks before before Tokyo?
Barely a month. That’s a whole other factor of stress. What does our coach [Bill Hamiter] do? Does he bring a veteran player who knows international competition, or does he go with someone younger who has their whole future ahead on this team?
If I ask you to make the case for bringing the veteran with all the experience, how would you state it?
I bring a lot of things to the table besides just playing. Our starting roster has been pretty set for a while, and I’ve known for a long time I’m not a starter. So I’ve accepted that and worked on contributing within that role. If Bill needs someone to come in and serve or provide a steady hand, I’m someone he knows he can rely on. I’ve been playing alongside a lot of these women for a really long time.
Would it be accurate to summarize your value in terms of team chemistry? Like, you provide a trust factor that supports a high confidence level?
Maybe. I’m not saying I’m the only one on our team who can be in that role, but I’ve played that role for a while now. I’m comfortable in it.
Can you walk me through the roster? The two starters I’m most familiar with are Katie Holloway and Nicky Nieves, but I don’t really have a sense of who else plays a key role.
Well Katie is my best friend and she’s irreplaceable. But Nicky is becoming a leader in her own right, and she’s doing amazing things. She popped up in People magazine, and she was also on the Today show. She’s been really quiet about all the attention.
Another one of our key players is Monique [Burkland] Matthews. She’s just a straight powerhouse. She has come such a long way in her career. I think she started about ten years ago, and she’s really become a go-to person. Heather Erickson is another one. I’ve never seen anyone hit the ball as hard as Heather can. I’ve been on the receiving end of that a couple of times in camp this year. Not fun, but I love the challenge.
Kaleo [Kanahele] has been one of our starting setters, and she’s a big player on this team as well. And then another one who has come up and is doing really well is Tia Edwards. She’s come such a long way. She was just a young teenager when she started coming to our practices, just to watch. I can’t even remember how old she was, but she’s so she’s so tiny. She’d come watch us practice, and it was hard to picture her on the court. She has completely blown my mind with how far she’s come. She definitely is a force to be reckoned with and is probably working toward earning herself a starting spot.
Honestly, I could go through every single player on this team and tell you how amazing they are. That’s how deep our team is.
When you think back to the first Paralympics you attended in 2008, and you look at where this movement stands today, what’s the biggest change that stands out to you?
To me it would just be the overall level of exposure is so much higher. I remember having to explain to my grandma what the Paralympics were the first time I went. And there’s been many a time when I’ve come back from the Paralympics after winning a medal, and the community I’m returning doesn’t even know what has just taken place—and this includes people who know I’m in the Paralympics.
Sometimes I still have to explain it to people, because there are still people who don’t have exposure to it and the whole thing is kind of foreign to them. But when NBC references the Olympics, they almost always include the Paralympics as well. If you see a commercial, it will include both the Olympic logo and the Paralympic logo. And then there are things like the Jessica Long commercial during the Super Bowl. I saw so many people post about that, and a lot of people rated it as their favorite commercial. For someone like me, I can see how much it means to see that type of representation.
Why do you think that Jessica Long commercial made such a big splash?
Paralympians have unique stories. Almost every one of us could tell a story about the hardships we’ve overcome or the bumpy journey that we’ve had to get to where we are today. Those stories are just interesting to people.
Does NBC do a decent job of telling those, in your opinion?
I’m usually at the Games, so I don’t really know what coverage they’re doing. Maybe this is maybe a side note, but I did notice something during the [college] basketball tournaments this year. After the whole thing came out about how the women’s weight room was so much worse than the men’s, all of a sudden I noticed that the Today show started playing highlights from the women’s tournament every day, and they followed it all the way to the end. I’ve never seen that much coverage of the women’s side on the Today show.
So maybe there will be a parallel change where the Paralympics start getting more coverage.
It will be really interesting to see if that happens.