IU graduate Cody Miller wins bronze in 100 breaststroke

Indiana graduate Cody Miller won a bronze medal Sunday night at the 2016 Rio Olympics, finishing the men’s 100-meter breaststroke with a time of 58.87.

Miller’s time set a new American record. He finished behind winner Adam Peaty of Great Britain, who grabbed gold with a world-record time of 57.13. South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh earned silver by finishing with a time of 58.69.

“(I’m) so happy,” Miller told NBC after the event. “I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little kid. You never really think it could happen until it happens.”

I wrote about Miller, and his personal struggles with his body, in Saturday’s print edition of The Herald-Times. That story is posted below.

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Cody Miller didn’t want to take his shirt off.

He was 13 and full of doubt, convinced the kids around the pool deck were judging him for the strange deformity taking shape in the center of his chest.

Born with pectus excavatum, a condition where the breastbone is sunken into the chest, Miller could feel the stares at swim meets and in the locker room after gym class. He looked weird, and felt even worse.

“I had a lot of self-confidence problems, because I was developing this concave chest,” Miller said. “… I was not cool with it.”

As he navigated his early teens, his chest caved in like a funnel and diminished his lung capacity by 12 to 20 percent. For an Olympic hopeful, he was short, too, with a body that never grew to be taller than 5-foot-11.

But Miller woke up every morning, pulled himself out of bed at 6:30 and dove into the pool determined to be known as something more than the kid with the funny body.

The strange looks, the slights, the disrespect he found for merely taking off his shirt fueled him. He wanted to be an Olympian.

This afternoon, when he takes the block for the United States in the 100-meter breaststroke, Miller will find his mission accomplished.

“When I was younger, and I was dealing with those things, and also dealing with being small, I really wanted to be good,” Miller said. “I knew that in order for me to get there, I had to completely devote myself to swimming. That’s what I’ve done.”

Ray Looze, Miller’s coach at Indiana, swears it’s true.

He points to Miller as one of the finest examples of commitment and determination, a young man who came to Indiana trying to become one of the program’s next great swimmers, and today, a 24-year-old who has refused to let slights — real or perceived — deter him on the way to Rio.

“He never misses a practice,” Looze said. “We talk about that a lot. It’s a simple statistic, but the guy never misses practice. You start adding that up over time and he’s not had huge breakthroughs, but just steady progress. He’s just a great example of what can happen if you have that long-term approach.”

That approach began to take hold during those early, awkward teenage years. Although the deformity grew, causing breathing problems in the process, Miller found solace in the pool.

It was also a place, his family believed, that could help strengthen his chest and shoulders. The indentation has been a part of Miller for the last decade, but he’s learned how to push on in spite of it.

Before he arrived at Indiana in 2010, Miller became a national age group (15-16) record holder in the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke events. During his time in Bloomington, he finished third in the 200 individual medley at the 2013 NCAA meet and second in the 200 breaststroke in 2014.

“The summer of 2014 is when I realized I can really do this,” Miller said. “I won (the 100-meter breaststroke at) nationals, and I thought, OK, I have a legitimate shot of making the Olympic team. I’ve always reminded myself of that.

“… In January, February, March of this year, there were points in time when I was really kind of freaking out, because I was thinking about it so much and it was getting so close. I would be laying in bed for an hour trying to fall asleep. I would be thinking my race and my stroke count and everything that was going to happen.

“As I got closer to the meet, I started to relax, because I knew everything was in the bank. I had been making deposits the last several years, and it was just time to make that withdrawal.”

The big moment came at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha in late June, when Miller qualified for the team in the 100 breaststroke. He finished as the runner-up, touching the wall .08 seconds after winner Kevin Cordes, who took first with a time of 59.18.

There it was, his ticket to Rio punched and the last decade of work validated.

“He’s a guy with a chip on his shoulder,” Looze said. “We talked a little about making sure that that chip remained there because he’s had a lot of success, especially in the last year to two years.

“Honestly, in a weird way, I think some of the things that people may look at with Cody — his size or his sunken chest — I think those are his strongest attributes. He’s blazed a lot of trails for people.”