Heather Miller-Koch says she’s been competitive her entire life. Growing up in Columbus, Wisconsin, she always wanted to be the best athlete on the field, on the court, or in gym class.
"I always wanted to be the first one picked on the team, even when we were playing flag football as kids," Miller-Koch said.
That’s one reason she began competing in the heptathlon in college and, later this week, in the 2016 Olympic Games.
The heptathlon is track and field’s multi-sport event for women. On Day One, athletes compete in the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put and the 200-meter sprint. On Day Two, it’s the long jump, javelin, and finally, the 800-meter run.
Miller-Koch’s athletic journey began in Columbus, a city she describes as "all about basketball." She started playing basketball when she was 10 years old and dove into track when she was 13 years old. She excelled in sprinting, the long jump and triple jump in high school. For college, St. Cloud State University in Minnesota recruited her to play on its basketball team and to jump on the track and field team. College was when she started thinking differently about sports.
"At St. Cloud, my coaches had in the back of their minds that I may fit the profile of a heptathlete, just with the strength I have in longer sprints and jumps," she said.
Miller-Koch red-shirted track and field her junior year to try out other heptathlon events to see if it was a path she wanted to take.
"I wasn’t sure about it at first, since I was sure about running hurdles or throwing," Miller-Koch said. "But once I started, I fell in love with it. It was so challenging, and I kept improving so rapidly since it was so new."
There was no turning back for Miller-Koch. Now a Twin Cities resident and part-time registered nurse, the heptathlon fills her need for competition.
"This was one of those opportunities you get to showcase all of your athleticism," Miller-Koch said. "It’s definitely a challenge. You have to train and practice long days just to get through a heptathlon. A lot of it’s just training so your body’s aware that you need to keep going."
Other athletes competing in the women’s heptathlon and men’s decathlon push her to improve her times, distances and, ultimately, her score.
"The heptathlon is a lot different than any other event," Miller-Koch said. "A lot of heptathletes will tell you it’s more fun to be around the heptathletes than it is in an open event. We know the struggles it entails and the different mental barriers you have to get through if one event goes poorly, especially if it’s one of your strong events. It’s definitely more fun, we’re very similar and competitive."
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Miller-Koch looks to her fellow heptathletes, like Sharon Day-Monroe and Hyleas Fountain, who she said set the bar for her early in her career and inspire her to improve. Miller-Koch said it would be tough for most athletes today to shatter gold-medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s long-standing world record in the heptathlon. Joyner-Kersee set the record at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, with 7,291 points.
While the points may not be as high as Joyner-Kersee, the number of talented women competing in the heptathlon is on the rise and the competition field is deep, Miller-Koch said.
"We may not have top Jackie Joyner-Kersee level or 6,800-point girls yet, but the United States has an incredible number of 6,000 girls, perhaps the most in the world," the Columbus native said. "The girls that hit the Olympic standard in the Trials can’t go to the Olympics because the U.S. can only send three athletes. There are some countries that can’t even send one girl because their heptathlete doesn’t hit that standard."
When Miller-Koch qualified for the 2016 Summer Olympics in July, she took second place and set a personal record with 6,423 points.
"It was honestly my favorite moment of my life," she said. "My husband, who’s my coach, and I still talk about it. Everyone says the day you get married should be the best moment of your life. Well, this was the best day of our life because we did it together."
Also qualifying for Team USA was Barbara Nwaba, who came in first with 6,494 points, and Kendell Williams, who finished third with 6,402 points.
Miller-Koch's goal in Rio is to increase her score.
"The 800-meter run is probably my strongest event compared to the rest of the field," she said. "Long jump would be my next best, and it’s also my favorite. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was 13."
Miller-Koch said her weaker events are the throws. She worked hard on shot put over the last year and increased her shot distance by 1.5 meters, which she said was "huge."
"Javelin I still struggle with," she said. "That’s where I need long jump and the 800-meter to make up the extra points."
Miller-Koch will be competing in the heptathlon on Friday and Saturday in Rio.
Listen to the complete audio of the interview with Miller Koch.