I covered the B’nai B’rith Sportsperson of the Year banquet last year and sat at the same table with Derek Miles and a few of his in-laws and their friends. I can’t remember what the deal was, but there was some difficulty in him making it to Sioux Falls on time to give his speech.
The banquet used to bring in some real hotshots to speak, but the money for that is gone, so they have to scramble a bit these days to get a guest speaker that will both attract some interest and not cost anything.
Miles, a two-time Olympian still competing on the world stage, fit the bill. He was also willing to do it, which had to have been considered a plus by the event’s organizers.
As I remember it, Miles had scribbled a few things down that he wanted to say, but it was a very short list if he had a list at all. I was immediately curious, having done at least a little public speaking in my life, as to how he was going to pull this off.
He proceeded to get everyone laughing at one time or another and just about everyone crying at other times in the same speech. His account of the aftermath of just missing out on a bronze medal in 2008 and of dealing with that disappointment should be required listening for everyone who competes. To a crowd of people from the Sioux Falls area who are deeply involved in youth sports, the message could not have been more on target.
Miles himself was choking up at times that night as he recounted the words of encouragement he’d received from Kendra Gottsleben, USD coach Dave Gottsleben’s daughter and sufferer of a rare metabolic disorder called mucopolysaccharidoses. Gottsleben, now a published author who works at the USD Center for Disabilities in Sioux Falls, told Miles to cheer up. The pole vaulter told the banquet crowd how much that email meant to him, and how well — given Kendra Gottsleben’s own hardships — it helped him put his disappointment in perspective.
If Miles was nothing more than another slug from around town delivering that speech that night, I would have walked away thinking this is a guy who really understands what it is — or at least what it’s supposed to be — all about. A bright, thoughtful guy who genuinely gets it, for lack of a better phrase.
So when we learned last night that he’d become the third American pole vaulter in history to make three Olympic teams, I was very happy for him and those close to him.
I remember when he first began to emerge as one of the best in the world, I talked to a co-worker of his in Arkansas, where Miles was working as an academic counselor while training with Earl Bell. She basically said Derek is very good at what he does and he has a hobby on the side that occasionally takes him to Europe. She was much more interested in talking about his gifts as a counselor than she was about his pole vaulting.
So I’m officially saluting Derek Miles today, he of inspirational will and generous spirit.