The incredible story behind Cody Miller's rise to Olympic fame

The British Broadcasting Company’s coverage of the men’s 100-meter breaststroke at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics understandably focused on homegrown star Adam Peaty, especially when he won the gold medal and eclipsed his own world record.

But as the BBC cameras zoomed in on Peaty’s post-race celebration, it was momentarily hijacked by the wildly exultant commotion in the neighboring lane.

“And look, too, some extraordinary emotion from Cody Miller,” observed the British broadcaster.

“Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” the American breaststroker kept yelling as he looked at the scoreboard, pumped his fist, punched the water and processed his bronze-medal performance. “Woo! Woo! Woo! Woo!”

It was, indeed, an extraordinary outburst for a third-place finisher. Setting a United States record of 58.87 seconds in the event was part of Miller’s joy, but only a fraction of it. Achieving a lifelong dream of becoming an Olympic medalist certainly factored in, but that did not tell the full story, either.

Only a very few people watching that scene knew the true wellspring behind Cody Miller’s emotional geyser. He was the happiest bronze medalist in Rio because he had survived some of the saddest moments a 24-year-old man could endure. And only now, some two months after Rio, is he willing to sit in a Bloomington, Ind., restaurant for two hours and spill it all.

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One day eight years ago, Craig Miller was leaving the family home in Las Vegas, on his way to work. That’s what he said, at least.

His only son decided to follow him at a distance.

Craig Miller set out on foot because his car had been repossessed for failure to make payments. He told his family that he got to work by walking to the bus stop and hopping on public transportation.

Craig was always outwardly upbeat, always insisting everything was fine. Cody and his mom, Debbie, had their doubts. Money was tight, bill collectors were calling – something didn’t add up.

Walking along the Vegas streets that day, a teenage boy quickly learned the crushing truth. His father was a fraud.

Craig Miller did not get on the bus. He walked to a gas station and bought a large aluminum can of alcohol. He poured it into a Styrofoam cup and stuck a straw through the lid, like it was a soft drink. And he crossed the street and entered the Red Rock Casino.

Cody watched it all, anger welling up in his teenage body.

“I followed him into the casino,” he recalled. “I approached him. I was super, super pissed. I said, ‘So, this is what you’re doing?’

“He was at a loss for words. He didn’t say anything. I just walked away, and [expletive] hit the fan.”

Cody told his mom what he had seen, and Craig’s addictive house of cards finally started to collapse around him. The signs had been there forever, but addicts are accomplished con men and family members often want to believe the excuses and fabrications they are fed.

The Millers were no different from millions of others in that regard.

Craig would intercept the mail, hiding collection notices. He said he worked the late shift, but one day Debbie came home from her job during the afternoon and saw beer cans all over the kitchen and asked him if he was drinking before work. Craig said he had gotten a call that he didn’t have to work that night.

Later on, Debbie would find that the vodka bottles in the house actually contained water – Craig was covering up evidence of how much he was drinking. She found cans and bottles stuffed into golf bags and hidden in the garage.

But the prescription drugs were the biggest problem.

They found loose pills around the house – Percocet, Valium, whatever Craig could get his hands on. Debbie had a root canal once and was prescribed Lortab – she took just one of them, didn’t like the feeling, and put the bottle in her briefcase. Later on she discovered that Craig had found the bottle and taken them all.

One day when Cody came home from school, he found his dad convulsing under a futon.

“He was going through withdrawals, trying to get off of something,” Cody theorized.

After finding out that there was no job, only drinking and drugs, Debbie Miller finally was ready to give up. She was working long hours and multiple jobs, and it still wasn’t enough to make ends meet with Craig’s dependency issues.

He had been the general manager of a car dealership in California, and had long worked in the car business. But those jobs disappeared, and then there was nothing. Finally, creditors came for the family home.

“It was very, very hard that he wasn’t doing all he could to help his family,” she said. “It took losing our house for me to say, ‘We need to leave this.’ “

Cody Miller poses for a photo after winning a bronze and a gold medal at the Olympic Games. (Getty)

Debbie and the kids bounced around a couple of places before renting a house in their same neighborhood. At one point they were informed that someone had broken into their foreclosed home and attempted to use the bathroom. Cody believes it was Craig, who had nowhere else to stay.

Eventually, Craig told Debbie that he had landed a job in Seattle. He needed money to get there, though. She offered to pay for his plane ticket, or a month’s rent in Las Vegas so he could stay near the family.

“He took the plane ticket,” Debbie said.

After that, Craig Miller largely faded from his kids’ lives. He would call on occasion – often from a strange number, someone’s borrowed phone – to see how they were doing, but always avoided directly answering questions about what he was doing. Cody remembers asking Craig where he was living and being told, “Underneath the stars.”

The son offered to assist the father however he could. His offers were rebuffed. Everything was fine, the father said.

When Cody graduated from Palo Verde High School in 2010, Craig came to the graduation. Debbie believes he took a bus to Vegas.

“That was the last time the kids saw him,” she said.

They were left only with memories – not all of them bad, by any means. Craig was a big, jovial guy, a former minor-league hockey player in his native Canada who liked to have fun. He was his kids’ first swim instructor, setting them on a path that would reward them a thousand-fold.

But the scars from the dark times remain.

Ask Cody’s younger sister, Catie, what she recalls about her father and this is her first sentence: “I remember always riding to the store with him to get alcohol.”

Now a junior swimmer at Duke, Catie also remembers her dad offering her ice cream but not letting go of it until she said “Thank you.” She can laugh at that, saying it helped her learn manners that she still practices today.

She also remembers going ice-skating once, and her father telling her, “I’ll always catch you if you fall.”

Plenty of people tried to catch Craig Miller when he fell, over and over again. He didn’t want to be caught.

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On Christmas day last year, Cody, Catie and Debbie were with family members in Debbie’s home state of Montana. Cody had taken a week off from his intensive Olympic trials training at his alma mater, Indiana University. Catie was on holiday break as well.

“It was one of the greatest days,” Catie said. “That vacation was so fun. My mom was in a good place. All of us were in a good place. And then [expletive] kind of hit the fan.”

While the family was playing cards, Debbie’s phone rang. The incoming call was from a San Diego area code, where Craig was living – he’d worked for a while on fishing boats, but the family suspected he wasn’t even doing that anymore.

Debbie let the call go to voicemail, then listened to the message. It was from a police detective, and he said it was important. Cody figured his father had been arrested and perhaps wanted help getting out of jail.

“Mom,” he said, “just ignore it.”

“Cody,” she replied, “they said it’s important.”

Cody returned the call.

The news: his father had been found dead that morning, homeless and shoeless outside an office building on Cable Street. Suspected cause of death was an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol, after roughly a year of living on the streets in the Ocean Beach neighborhood. Craig William Miller was 59 years old.

“I acted strong because my mom just broke down,” Cody recalled of that horrible Christmas day. “It broke her. Just broke her.

“I didn’t have a choice. Everything just went numb, except for the horrible pit in my stomach.”

Cody Miller and his father, Craig. (Photo courtesy of the Miller family)

The tidal waves of emotion were inevitable: sadness, anger, guilt. The reality – a father and ex-husband dead on the streets on Christmas day – was devastating.

“It’s a disgusting, horrible feeling,” Debbie said. “We were married for almost 10 years before we had kids. I spent almost 30 years with that man, and that’s how he chose to live his life.”

For Cody, the real pain arrived the following day. That’s when he summoned the courage to listen to a couple of voicemails on his phone from earlier in December.

They were from his dad, who had called while Cody was swimming spectacularly for the United States in the “Duel In The Pool” competition in Indianapolis, against a European all-star team. Cody had won both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes in the meet.

Despite being homeless, Craig kept up with his kids’ swimming exploits – according to one report, he regularly spent time at the North Park Library checking online for results of their meets. Craig had called during the Duel In The Pool, but Cody did not listen to the voicemails because he was trying to stay focused on the meet and avoid an upsetting conversation.

“On Dec. 26, I listened to the voicemails and totally broke down,” Cody said. “He sounded like [expletive]. He sounded horrible. It ripped my heart out.

“My dad was not a bad guy. I definitely have good qualities I got from him. But I always remember him drinking. Always, always drinking. We did everything we possibly could to help him for as long as we could. He went to rehab twice. But he didn’t want any of it.”

Exactly six months out from Olympic trials – something Miller had devoted his life to with remarkable intensity – death had intruded upon his carefully laid plans. But Cody was grimly armed with prior experience in how to deal with that.

In a Minneapolis hotel room in March 2011, the night before his first NCAA championships, Indiana freshman Miller got a call from one of his friends he grew up swimming with on the Sandpipers club team in Las Vegas. The news: his friend and former teammate Jay Sirat had been found dead in his grandmother’s garage, hanging himself with an electrical cord. Family members attributed his death in part to an addiction to bath salts.

Badly shaken, Miller finished 28th in the 100 breaststroke in that meet, and was 10th in the 200.

A year later, just a week out from the 2012 Olympic trials, he got another phone call. Another former Sandpipers teammate was dead. Yung C. “Andrew” Chin, an accomplished student who was enrolled at the Air Force Academy, had shot himself with a shotgun while home in Las Vegas on summer leave.

Cody swam well in Omaha that year, reaching the eight-man final in the 200 breast and semifinals in the 200 individual medley. But it was difficult putting Chin’s death behind him.

So when the phone rang in Montana last Christmas, here was the pattern repeating again. Here was death trespassing on the sport that had become Cody Miller’s life work.

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The reasons why Cody should never have been the happiest bronze medalist in Brazil are numerous, and not all of them have to do with a fractured family upbringing. You can go back to birth.

He was born with a condition called pectus excavatum, which basically is a sunken chest caused by deformities of the ribs and sternum.

“It looks like I have a big hole in my chest,” Cody said.

He was teased about it repeatedly as a kid, but the challenge of the defect goes beyond appearance. It also inhibits lung capacity, which is about as vital as any physical characteristic for a swimmer. But Cody and, in turn, his sister took to the sport at a young age and he overcame the sunken chest with relative ease.

He was very good, eventually setting national age-group breaststroke records. He was also a bit cocky, and a bit angry at times. He flirted with enough trouble as a teenager that it could have derailed his college aspirations.

“He wasn’t an angel,” Debbie said. “He opened his mouth a little more frequently than he should have. He had a target on his back from age 10 [when he was ranked No. 1 in the nation for that age group in the 100 breaststroke] and sometimes he didn’t handle that as well as you’d hope. There were outbursts.”

Structure at home was understandably absent. Debbie worked three jobs to keep food on the table, which meant that she was rarely home.

“Cody and I, we really raised ourselves,” Catie Miller said. “I did the cooking for the most part, and Cody watched out for me.

“Swimming was everything. It was our lives. It was where we felt at home. When we lost our house, moving around, I could always turn to my coaches. They were like dads to us. Had we not had that structure, I don’t know what could have happened.”

Sandpipers coaches Ron Aitken and Chris Barber provided vital guidance during that time to both children, but first to Cody. They helped mentor him through some turbulent times, always emphasizing where swimming could take him if he stayed focused on it.

“Cody was about ready to go to the streets,” said Indiana coach Ray Looze. “Ron pulled him back from that. Had it not been for him, things would have been very different.

“He was somebody there to say no, and to enforce no.”

Cody Miller, Michael Phelps and Ryan Murphy of the United States celebrate winning gold in the Men's 4 x 100m medley relay at the Olympics. (Getty)

When Cody arrived at Indiana, he entered a fully functioning support system. Swimming had delivered out of chaos and into stability. This was a world he hadn’t experienced.

One day he confided something to one of Indiana’s volunteer assistant coaches, Ali DeWitt: Before arrived at IU, he’d never had hot breakfasts before. Cereal and bagels were all he knew; the joys of bacon and sausage and eggs were a new luxury.

“My heart kind of died inside,” DeWitt said. “My mom always made me hot breakfast. I have both my parents, who spoil me rotten. Hearing his story was amazing to me.”

Looze knew he was getting a talented breaststroker. He did not know how driven Miller was to maximize his potential.

At maybe 5-foot-11 – or maybe not – Cody is not blessed with the length that can be so important in swimming. The inhibited lung capacity had to be overcome. But superior technique and an enthusiastic commitment to the endless daily workout grind elevated Miller into the sport’s elite.

“He had something to prove to everyone,” Indiana assistant Mike Westphal said. “There weren’t a lot of people saying, ‘Cody Miller is the next Olympian.’ That determination and drive was there.”

He dominated the breaststroke events within the Big Ten and was highly placed in the NCAA championships his sophomore, junior and senior seasons, but one person he could never get by was Arizona star Kevin Cordes. His best finish was second to Cordes in the 200 breast his senior year.

Out of the pool, Cody leaned on Westphal. When Craig Miller would materialize after months of silence and call his son, Cody struggled with how to handle it. He learned that Westphal could relate.

“The relationship I have with my father is nonexistent, and he’s still alive,” Westphal said. “My situation was real similar to Cody’s. I listened to him and told him my experience going through it. I told him that if [Craig] reaches out, it’s OK to talk to him.

“I really view Cody as my son.”

The other fundamental source of support at Indiana was Ali DeWitt. Once she stepped down as a volunteer assistant with the swim program and went to work as a school teacher in her hometown of Martinsville, Ind., about 30 miles north of Bloomington, she accepted Cody’s overtures to date.

By then, they already knew it was a match made in nerd heaven.

When they first met during Cody’s freshman year, he was wearing a Batman hat. Ali thought it was cool. When they started talking about the third Hobbit movie, “Battle of the Five Armies,” Cody said he went to see it alone. So did she, it turned out.

She was into Star Wars and Marvel Comics. He could relate.

During one of their first conversations, Ali asked Cody two questions: why is one of your shoulders hairier than the other, and what’s wrong with your chest? Forget the long, dark hair tucked behind the ears, the chiseled cheek bones and the bright eyes; let’s get to the weird stuff.

There wasn’t much choice but to let someone this charmingly forward in, so Cody did. He gave Christmas cards to all the IU coaches, and in Ali’s, he included an AMC movie gift card and some handwritten thoughts.

“It was the nicest card I’d ever received,” she said.

The relationship progressed. Catie Miller met Ali and liked her so much that she gave her brother a deadline: propose to her within two years or you’re an idiot.

Cody made the deal. At the USA Swimming Golden Goggles gala last November, he popped the question and she accepted. When they returned to Bloomington, they had a photographer take engagement pictures of the two.

In Harry Potter garb.

Cody Miller and his fiancée Ali Dewitt pose for Harry Potter-themed engagement photos.

Of all their shared adventure-fantasy loves, Harry Potter ranks first. They have cloaks. They have wands. DeWitt, a sixth-grade teacher, has done her classroom in a Harry Potter motif.

A lot of swimmers have other swimmers as their role models and heroes. Cody Miller has a fictional boy wizard.

“I think Harry has a really good heart, but also had to grow up faster than normal,” Ali said. “Because of everything, Cody had to grow up faster than most.”

Cody put it even more succinctly.

“Harry was an orphan,” he said. “I could relate to that.”

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On their first date, Cody told Ali he was an open book. Ask me anything, he said, and so she did. Eventually, the whole family story came out.

“I think he realized you can’t change the past,” Ali said. “Instead of using it in a negative way, he was turning it into a positive. I think he’s a very special person to have done what he has done after seeing what he has seen.”

That mindset faced its most rigorous test last Christmas.

With his mother devastated, Cody handled the aftermath of Craig’s death. He communicated with authorities, arranged for a cremation and paid for it with his USA Swimming National Team stipend. The ashes were sent to one of Craig’s brothers in Winnipeg.

Then Cody had to return to Bloomington and get back to work. He met with Looze and Westphal to tell them what happened.

“He was raw,” Looze said of the swimmer who came back to him with news of his father’s death. “I’ve not seen him like that. He’s a tough dude, takes a lot to get any sort of emotion out of him. That was a really, really rough meeting.”

But Cody emerged from the meeting buoyed by their support and ready to move forward. The six months leading up to Olympic trials were no time for a training lapse. He already had worked far too assiduously to backslide now.

In the summer of 2015, when Cody fully committed to an Olympic run, he vowed to give up junk food, soda and ice cream. And he gave himself a remarkable bedtime for a man in his early 20s in a college town: lights out by 9:30 p.m. every night. For a year.

He did it.

“He is one of the most determined individuals I’ve seen,” DeWitt said. “He said, ‘If I don’t make the team, I want to know that at least I put everything I had into it.’ He had his eyes on the prize.”

His eyes remained locked on Omaha and a top-two finish there. That’s what it takes to make the American Olympic swim team, a merciless test of preparedness and performance under pressure that has cracked some great swimmers.

Cody’s event lasts less than a minute. Make one significant mistake, and it’s goodbye Rio and hello anonymity.

Cody rose to the occasion, finishing second to old nemesis Cordes by eight one-hundredths of a second. He was fuming over his finish – a somewhat lengthy glide into the wall – when he looked at the scoreboard and saw the reminder of why second place at the Olympic trials is perfectly wonderful: the Olympic rings were next to his name and Cordes’.

He was going to Rio. That’s when the relief and joy set in.

That was Stage One of a dream fulfilled. Stage Two was winning a medal, and that would be difficult.

The heavy favorite was Peaty, reigning world-record holder. The strongest challenger figured to be South African Cameron van der Burgh, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist and former world-record holder. Cordes, six inches taller and for much of the last four years Miller’s nemesis, looked like the choice for bronze.

“To get there, you’ve got to go through Kevin Cordes,” Looze told him. “You have to find a way to get by him.”

“I’m beating him in the Olympics,” Cody responded.

He stayed locked in through Team USA’s month-long training camp and came to Rio primed. Through the heats and semifinals, he swam himself into position.

Miller qualified faster than Cordes for the final – second-fastest, in fact, to only Peaty. Cody would be in Lane 5, Peaty in 4, Van der Burgh in Lane 3, Cordes in 2.

Back home, Westphal was with a group of swimmers at the Junior National Championships in Minneapolis. A fellow coach asked if he wanted to go to a bar to watch Cody’s attempt at a medal.

No, he said. He needed to watch that race alone in his hotel room. A renowned stoic knew his emotional limits.

That night, Peaty got off to his trademark explosive start, and the race for gold was over shortly thereafter. It came down to Miller and van der Burgh for silver and bronze, with Cody getting his hands on the wall .35 seconds ahead of fourth-place Cordes – and breaking his American record in the process.

And that triggered the bronze-medal reaction heard ‘round Rio.

“He maximized himself in a lot of ways,” Looze said. “That celebration – to my dying day, that will be something I’ll never forget.”

Mike Westphal sent a simple text that meant the world to Cody: “Proud of you.”

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Beating Cordes also earned Cody the breaststroke spot on the American 400 medley relay – the final event on the final night of the swimming competition in Rio. It also happened to be the final event ever for one Michael Phelps, who would swim the butterfly leg.

There was no way the U.S. was losing that relay – especially after backstroke lead-off Ryan Murphy blasted a world record. Murphy gave way to Miller, who gave way to Phelps, and then Nathan Adrian cleaned it up to put a star-spangled bow on the greatest individual career in swimming history and one of the great team performances in Olympic history.

Thus Cody Miller left an Olympics he wasn’t sure he would make with both a gold medal and a bronze. He flew home to Indiana, but in reality could perhaps have floated there.

A few weeks later, he sat in a booth at a Moe’s in a strip mall not far from the IU campus, telling every painful detail of his extraordinary upbringing. Yet his eyes are dry, his voice is strong. His outlook is bright.

“This sucks that I’m sitting here talking to you about my dad and his problems and the fact that he’s dead,” he said. “But honestly, I don’t think my life has been bad. I feel lucky. A lot of people have had it much worse.”

That is a mantra. There is some scar tissue to deal with, but nothing that cannot be endured.

As Cody Miller talked, you could see a fresh tattoo on the inside of his right biceps. The Olympic rings.

“It’s the only tattoo I’ve ever wanted,” he said. “And honestly, it’s probably the only one I’ll ever get.

“When I look at it, I don’t think about the Olympics or the medals. I think of the 15 years of what it took to get there. I’m proud.”