- School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences
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A gymnast using the power of positivity.
Gymnast Olivia Miller warms up on the uneven bars, her favorite event. She’s a senior, and this competition in Washington, D.C., is her final meet. She circles around and around, gaining speed until she’s ready to spring into the air with a twist and two flips. Then she makes a perfect landing.
Miller has been practicing since age 5 when her mom made her a bookmark with a handwritten question in sparkly ink: Do you want to flip and twist once a week? She began lessons at Gymkhana Gymnastics in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, and enjoyed it so much she started training for competitions at 9 years old. She earned spots on the podium at big events such as the Junior Olympic Nationals. When it came time for college, several schools recruited her, but she chose the University of Pittsburgh, a 20-minute drive away, for its strong academics.
The “hometown hero,” as her teammates affectionately call her, continued to excel. Miller was a two-time East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) Rookie of the Week in 2019 and a four-time EAGL all-conference honoree, earning first team honors in the all-around (2019, 2021), and second team honors on bars (2019) and floor exercise (2020, 2021). She was named one of 34 “outstanding female gymnasts” in the country for the American Athletic Inc Award in 2022.
Alongside hours of training her body, Miller was quietly building another secret weapon: the focused energy of positivity and enthusiasm.
“I always find a way to get excited, whether I’m competing, taking an exam or volunteering,” she says. “Even if it doesn’t go well, if you find some kind of joy, it’s worth it.”
A rehabilitation sciences major, Miller earned awards for high scholarship, including the prestigious Blue-Gold Award that honors academic achievement alongside athletics and leadership. For that she got a weighty trophy and her name carved forever on the Varsity Walk, a strip of sidewalk that connects Heinz Chapel to the Cathedral of Learning.
However, she had plenty of opportunity to practice positivity through challenges, too. Gymnastics is notoriously hard on the body and rehab is a near constant thing, Miller says. During her first year at Pitt, she tore her shoulder labrum and capsule, prompting major surgery.
Gymnastics can also be stressful — Miller says she often put too much pressure on herself to succeed in sports and academics. Thankfully her teammates helped encourage spontaneity and mental health breaks.
“They’d say,’“Liv, you can only study anatomy for so long. Come with us to the coffee shop.’”
Another challenge arose when her study abroad plans in Austria were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Disappointed, she decided to help someone and gain patient care experience instead. She took a position as a home health care worker, assisting a quadriplegic man in his home five afternoons a week. In addition to medical tasks like measuring blood pressure and catharizing him, Miller took him to the grocery store, fed him, combed his hair, watched movies with him and laughed with him.
“It was one of the best experiences I ever had,” she says. It confirmed her decision to pursue a career as a physician assistant.
Miller hopes to inject her positivity into the hospital setting, where there’s often a lot of fear, stress and sadness. She’ll stay at Pitt to attend the two-year Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid program, with help from a George I. Carson Graduate Fellowship and the Jim and Pat Thacker Award from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But that perfect landing during warmups at the D.C. meet? Actually, Miller’s knee felt a little weird afterward. She thought she could still compete, finishing her career with the volcanic energy and artistic precision she was known for, but no — her ACL was torn.
Two hours later she sat on the sidelines as teammate Kiley Robatin competed in her place. Miller resolved to cheer the loudest, drawing from a wellspring of cultivated joy to send her friend soaring. A good ending after all.
— Liberty Ferda