Jan. 29, 2009
By Larry Watts
When one door closed, another one opened. And Steve Miller wasn't about to miss his window of opportunity.
Miller had just started his summer workouts following his freshman swim season at Rutgers University back in 2006 when he received news that would give him a sinking feeling. The Rutgers athletic department had decided to eliminate the men's swimming program following the 2007 campaign as part of major budget cutbacks.
At least that was the company line sent out by the Rutgers administration.
"There was a major budget cut across the board in the state of New Jersey and that included higher education," Miller says. "Being a state school, Rutgers had to cut several million dollars so they eliminated six sports -- men's swimming, men's heavyweight and lightweight crew, men's and women's fencing, and men's tennis.
"But we later found out the money saved was reallocated to the football program. They just decided those sports were no longer a priority for them."
The athletes from the eliminated sports were left with two options; they could finish their academic careers on scholarship at Rutgers or investigate other schools for their sports. Miller chose the latter.
"I wanted to finish out my years of eligibility as an athlete," the Windham, N.H. native says. "There was some talk about saving the swimming program, but I didn't want to be involved with an athletic program that didn't support my sport."
Opening his recruitment all over again, Miller trimmed his offers down to Texas A&M, Tennessee and Minnesota. He took visits to all three schools and Minnesota left a lasting impression.
"It was the total package," he says. "The team was really close-knit and hard working. I really got along with (head coach) Dennis Dale and (assistant coach) Bill Tramel. The facilities, the support from the athletic department and the campus were all great. And the Minnesota geography program was rated among the top five in the nation.
"I wanted to be part of a championship program and I knew how strong this team had been coming in. The Minnesota coaching staff has a reputation of taking people who are pretty good and turning them into studs. I wanted to be part of that."
Miller started his college career as an engineering major but soon switched to geography. He has taken a liking to urban geography and hopes to get involved in city planning.
"I like to see how stuff is planned out and observing different issues people have to deal with in the urban world. I'm still not sure what path this will take. I also thought about getting involved in real estate, but with the economy the way it is now, I don't think I'll be going down that road in the next couple of years."
Miller's goal for his junior season was to make the Golden Gophers' lineup for the Big Ten Championships. He wound up competing in all three sprint freestyles (50, 100 and 200) and was a member of the 400 free relay team. He took sixth in the 100 and placed 18th in the 200, but the meet ended on a bitter note when he left the blocks .01 of second too early and the relay team was disqualified.
"That wasn't a great feeling," he says. "It was the last event and we were hoping to make the NCAA-qualifying time."
Fortunately, Miller and his teammates got one more opportunity at the Last Chance Qualifier one week later. They hit the qualifying standard and went on to claim eighth place at the NCAA Championships, which earned Miller All-America status.
"We had five relays at NCAA and four made the top eight while the other was ninth," Miller says. "That was a huge reason for our success (the Gophers finished 11th). Relays have always been big for Minnesota and it felt great to be part of that."
Already tapered, Miller and some of his teammates immediately headed off to Ohio State to participate in the USA Grand Prix, where they hoped to acquire qualifying times for the Olympic Trials. Miller wound up qualifying in both the 50-meter and 100 freestyles.
"The Olympic Trials were something I had dreamed of since I was about 10 or 11," he says. "It was an unbelievable experience. There must have been 12,000 people at some of those sessions; it felt like a professional football game. And what made it so great for me was we had the second-largest contingent of athletes at the meet. I was there with all of my best friends."
Although he didn't qualify for the Olympic team, Miller managed to tie the school's long course record in the 50 (22.70). Earlier in the summer, at the U.S. Open, he broke the Minnesota long course record in the 100 with a time of 50.14.
Heading into his senior season, Miller was bestowed another honor when he was named one of the Gophers' tri-captains. Considering he had only been with the program for one year, he said it came as a big surprise.
"I've talked to a lot of people who have transferred in their sport and they have told me how hard it is to be the new guy, but I have never felt more accepted than I have been at Minnesota," he says. "Being a captain is something I take a lot of pride in. I came in here so eager to learn from the coaches and the older guys, and now I'm looked upon as someone who should be giving advice."
Miller is hoping to help the Gophers finish in the top two in the Big Ten this season and crack the top 10 at the NCAA meet. He expects to be in the lineup for the postseason in all three sprint freestyles along with the 200 and 400 free relays and is also hoping to land a berth on the 800 free relay squad.
"That 800 relay is going to be tough to make," he says. "We have some great 200 free sprinters on this team. It kind of depends on who is swimming well at the time.
"But if last summer is any indication, anything is possible. I never thought I would swim that fast. That just helped boost my confidence and I've gained more confidence from the work I've put in since then."'
Miller still stays in contact with several of the Rutgers refugees. Josh Griffey joined him at Minnesota and he says there are other swimmers at Maryland, Wyoming, Clemson and Florida.
"A bunch of us even got together in Minneapolis last summer," he says. "The worst part about the whole team being dropped was having to leave all the friends I made out there. But I've had a great run here and am happy with the way things have turned out."