A Cycling Accident Sparked this Triathlete’s Ironman Journey

A terrible cycling accident sparked Matt Miller’s Ironman journey

When Matt Miller raced Ironman Cozumel in 2010, he got a few strange looks. In a sea of aero helmets, Miller was an anomaly in his full-face mountain bike helmet, which covered not only his skull, but his face and chin. It was definitely not normal for an Ironman.

Then again, Matt Miller’s route to Ironman was not normal.

When Miller began college at the University of Virginia, he did so with the intent of swimming for the school’s NCAA team. But after a year, he became disillusioned with the rigors and demands of collegiate sports. What once was fun had become a burden. Around this time, some family friends of Miller’s suggested he join them in training for a triathlon. The variety of three different disciplines was attractive, but he was more intrigued by the way triathletes talked about the sport: It sounded fun.

“The athletes who compete in this sport are the most passionate and welcoming competitors,” Miller says. “I think this is why so many people get hooked on the sport after just their first race.”

And Miller was hooked. Soon after his first sprint triathlon, he joined the UVA Triathlon Club. He was a fixture at group workouts, especially on his favorite ride, an 85-mile route in Virginia’s famed Blue Ridge Mountains. It was on that ride in 2008 where the new triathlete’s life changed forever. While descending, Miller lost control of his bike, crossing the center line of the road and colliding—head on—with a car.

“One of the many blessings I have is that I do not remember the accident,” Miller says. “Really, I do not remember anything from a few minutes before the accident occurred until about a week after the accident, when I was stable enough to be transferred out of the ICU at the University of Virginia Medical Center.”

During that week, no one knew if Miller would live. Miller’s face took the brunt of the collision, and every bone in it was broken. It would take hours of surgery to reconnect the shards of bones, nerves and muscles on his face. After emerging from surgery, Miller was placed in a medically induced coma for almost a week to alleviate the swelling in his brain.

The road to recovery was going to be long—doctors were convinced it’d be years before he was fully functional again. But the 21-year-old’s goal wasn’t to be functional—it was to come back better than ever.

“I decided pretty early on after my accident that I wanted to do an Ironman,” says Miller. “I thought this would be very symbolic of a full recovery.” The doctors were wary at first, but as Miller rebounded from the accident, they encouraged him to begin swimming, biking and running again.

In 2010, less than two years after his near-death experience, Miller achieved his goal at Ironman Cozumel, wearing his full-face mountain bike helmet to protect the fragile bones of his face and skull.

“Race day was incredible,” Miller says. “I thought of the people who had helped me to get to where I was: My family, friends, doctors, nurses and other medical personnel, and so many others who had been there for me when I really needed it—they all flashed through my head and the memories fueled me all the way to the finish. I was so thankful to be in that moment and so grateful to everyone who had helped me get there.”

Today, Miller pays homage to the ones who saved his life by doing the same for others. At the University of Virginia Medical Center, the very same hospital where he once lay in a coma, Miller is completing his medical residency in head and neck surgery. He continues to train and race, completing a sprint triathlon every year to mark a celebration of life.

“Winston Churchill once said, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.’” Miller says. “I will always strive to live this way.”