Palmer High cross-country ski coach Mikey Evans remembers the day he met Grace Miller. It was at a summer rollerski workout, and Miller had just finished middle school.
The coach had spoken with her mother ahead of time and been informed that Miller had no arm below her left elbow. But Evans said that's not what stood out that day. What he noticed was a strong young skier who worked hard. Wheels turned in his mind about her potential.
"I said to her, 'Hey, if you wanted to, you could be a member of the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team by the time you're done skiing in high school.' And she just kind of looked at me and laughed," Evans said.
"And I said, 'I want you to remember this — the year you graduate from high school is an Olympic year.'"
Now a senior at Mat-Su Middle College School who competes on Palmer's high school team, the 18-year-old recently received the official invitation that proved Evans' prediction correct.
He said Miller told him in a way that was "so Grace" — out of earshot of her teammates, not wanting to call much attention to herself.
"She's a walking slice of humble pie," Evans said.
The next day, Evans' voice strained with emotion as he shared the news with the rest of the squad, drawing applause. The skiers were already inspired by Miller's grit, he said. But it was a rare moment of gratification for an athlete whose accomplishments are hard to glean from race-day results when everyone else on snow has two arms. This is a big deal, he said.
"I've cried more in the last 24 hours than I have in the last five years," Evans said.
After the team meeting, the athletes piled into vans and headed to train in a bitter breeze on squeaky-cold snow. Miller kept her prosthesis on and warmed up on hills, showing smoother technique than most and moving faster than many as she prepared for the last few high school races of her career, then the biggest competition of her life.
Evans joked about wishing he could capture her spirit in a powder that day, so he can feed it to all his other student athletes.
"I wish that everybody who coaches could have a Grace Miller on the team," Evans said.
Now another team does.
Attracting attention from Team USA
It was only a year ago that BethAnn Chamberlain, the U.S. Paralympic Nordic development coach, first met Miller. Chamberlain came to Anchorage to co-host a two-day clinic with Challenge Alaska for physically impaired cross-country skiers at Russian Jack Springs Park.
It was an event designed to teach technique and encourage participation. It was also an opportunity for Team USA to recruit. In Miller, Chamberlain discovered a skier with a background in the sport, but unaware of where it could take her.
"We're always looking to find potential athletes, and people like Grace are exactly who we love to find," Chamberlain said.
"I wouldn't have necessarily guessed at that time that she was going to be on the team this year, but I am so very happy that she is. She worked really hard."
In May, Miller joined the U.S. Paralympic ski team training camp in Bend, Oregon, where Chamberlain said Miller got her first look at the work and professionalism that went into being on the national team.
At the time, it seemed unlikely she could make the team this year. Miller had one thing working in her favor, though. She competes in the standing division of the sport, which has a small roster of racers, Chamberlain said. Other divisions include sit-skiers and visually impaired athletes.
After tracking Miller's training through the summer and fall, U.S. coaches invited her to race at December's Para Nordic World Cup in Canmore, Alberta. It was a trip of several firsts for Miller: first time she used her passport, first time she faced international competition, first time she was evaluated by an official doctor of Paralympic sports, a required step for classification.
"It's pretty much a doctor coming in and saying, 'Congratulations, you have one hand,' " she said with a laugh.
And it was the first time she lined up with fellow skiers who raced like she does.
"It was just amazing," she said.
Miller can't remember a time that has happened in Alaska. That's why she laughed that day, years ago, when Evans told her she could be a Paralympian. Skiing was just something she did because she loved it.
And though she has learned to push herself athletically since then, her success was difficult to track. She's not normally a top skier who earns points for her team, Evans said, though she certainly doesn't come in last.
"It's always been, I guess, harder," Grace said. "I still only ski with one pole, so I can't ski as fast as the other people with two poles, which is frustrating at times."
Her mother said she has noticed occasional disappointment.
"It is discouraging for her to be in race after race after race and come in not at the top, but she realizes, just as I do, that that's a false expectation," Kymberly Miller said.
That's why the World Cup race opened her eyes. There she watched Paralympians who were skilled, fast and challenged in ways she could relate to. Suddenly, there were no excuses. The ceiling seemed to lift.
"It was fun to see Grace respond to that, and respond well to that," Chamberlain said.
The experience affected her mindset about racing at home. Now she looks forward to it more than ever.
"This year it's changed, that I don't need to win my races. Every race is a chance for me to improve on myself, on my own abilities," she said.
"It's another chance to push yourself to see what your limit is."
Small family unit
Helena Grace Nan Zhi Miller has been on skis since shortly after she was adopted at age 3. Kymberly Miller, a mountaineering guide and experienced outdoor enthusiast, traveled to Guangzhou, China, to bring her to Alaska in 2003. The child had never seen someone with blonde hair before, Kymberly said.
Kymberly recalled an orphanage made of stone. The staff cared for the child well, it seemed, but the facility got by with little. She remembered that the children wore many layers of clothing because the building had no heat.
The toddler's name was Pan Nan Zhi, a name she partially preserved in the full legal name she was given in the United States. Grace's missing left forearm and hand is the result of amniotic banding, a congenital disorder that occurs when fibers obstruct development of a limb in the womb.
Kymberly, now a critical care nurse at Providence Alaska Medical Center, adopted Grace as a single mother, and Grace is an only child. They have four dogs. Since the beginning, outdoor activities has been a way for them to bond, Kymberly said.
"It's our way of being together," Kymberly said.
It was a childhood filled with outdoors ambitions. They did the four-day Bomber Traverse in the Talkeetna Mountains when Grace was 10. Though Kymberly may have helped instill Grace's passion for mountains and skiing, Grace has also learned to be independent.
"Her success is all Grace," she said "It's her tenacity and it's her effort and everything else. It wasn't mine."
Grace plans to attend University of Alaska Fairbanks in fall. She hopes to make the ski team.
At midday on a crystalline Sunday in early February, Kincaid Park thrummed with color and activity. The popular Ski for Women wrapped up as the competitive Besh Cup race got underway for young athletes.
Inside the bunker, Grace checked a course map and concluded she was in for some hills during the 5-kilometer freestyle event. She packed her prosthetic arm in her green backpack, untangled her earphones to play a selection of classic rock tracks she called "calming," and headed to the start area wearing Team USA tights.
Kymberly waited near the start line to see her daughter off, something she doesn't often get to do since she works through the night on weekends. She had finished work at 7:30 a.m. that day, and slept in her van for a few hours instead of heading home to Palmer, hoping to see her race at least one more time before she heads to the Paralympic Games.
Chamberlain said Grace is still developing as an athlete. The team doesn't expect her to win medals at the Paralympic, but the experience of being there will be invaluable. Grace said she has already begun to think about how things might be different at the 2022 Games in Beijing.
At 12:54 p.m. Sunday, she bolted from the start line, accelerating up a hill almost immediately, then another, her breath highlighted by the sun in the cold air as she climbed out of view. She didn't race with Besh Cup standings in mind. Instead, she said she had a different way to reflect on her performance, a method as effective as it was simplistic.
She would reach her goal if she got to the finish line, leaned on her pole to recover, and felt like she had nothing left to give.