Paralympian Grace Miller Gets Real About the Pressures of Being a Young Pro Athlete

Getty / Carmen Mandato

Alaska native Grace Miller, 24, has been cross-country skiing since she was 4 years old, which is probably why she’s seen so much success at the Paralympic Games. She made her nordic Skiing debut in Pyeongchang in 2018, when she was just 18 years old, and she also competed in the 2022 Paralympic Games in Beijing.

As part of POPSUGAR’s series highlighting young athletes making their mark, Miller reflected on the mental pressures of her sport, her career goals for the future, and more. Read it all, in her own words, below. And to hear more athletes’ stories, check out For the W.

I think I was 17 when I went to my first nordic World Cup race, and then six months later, I was in Pyeongchang competing for Team USA in the 2018 Paralympic Games. It was incredibly overwhelming. I just remember having no idea what was going on and just feeling very underprepared and just not confident whatsoever. But it was definitely the people around me – they were just so happy for me. And in many ways, Pyeongchang was a better experience for me, because I just didn’t have any expectations. Whereas in Beijing, this past year, it was mentally a lot harder on me because I had so many expectations of how I should be performing.

“[W]e’re expected to grow up fast.”

I feel like a lot of professional athletes, we’re expected to grow up fast. We’re expected to be on time, to be able to juggle so many things at once, and do all of it at the top level. Not only does being a professional athlete mean you are competing at the highest level, but it kind of bleeds into everything in your life, and nothing can be slacking, which is hard. It’s kind of about trying to keep in check how young you really are. It’s like, it’s fine, most 17-year-olds shouldn’t be dealing with this.

I think the hardest thing I’ve struggled with is separating my race results from my worth. And I still struggle with it all the time. It’s so easy as an athlete to get caught up in everything. But it’s important to take a step back and be like, “I’m 23, it’s OK that I’m not getting first in a race.”

Another thing I feel like people don’t realize is that when you race, even though it’s a lot physically, it’s so much mental about what else is stressing you out in life. Like, do you have a big exam due that is stressing you out and therefore you didn’t sleep that well, and you’re racing the next day? It’s not usually just one thing that makes for a bad race. And it’s OK. Mental health is just so important, and it’s something that I just think we need to talk about so much more.

I’m currently working full-time as a nurse aide, because I’m applying to grad school right now to hopefully go to physician assistant school. In the summers, I’ll usually work full-time and do training by myself. And then once winter comes around, I’ll go back to training full-time with the team.

Long-term, I hope to eventually become a physician’s assistant. I really love competing and being an athlete, but I feel like my true passion is working in healthcare and helping other people. I’m very lucky that I’m able to be an athlete and help Team USA, but I don’t know if that’s my lifelong goal.

But I do think cross-country skiing is one of the few sports you can do for your whole entire life. On the trails, there’ll be guys in their 80s who are passing me, and I’m like, how is this possible? It takes so much technique to actually learn to do it.

The people who are in the cross-country ski community – that’s honestly the main reason why I stay, because I just love the environment and everyone is just so supportive. Like anything in life – like in a job, it’s the people who you work with that make it actually enjoyable. If it’s not the people, then there’s really no reason to stay.

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