VERMILLION, S.D. | As the opening ceremony for 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro airs on TV Friday evening, Derek Miles will do something he hasn’t done for more than a decade.
Watch it from his couch.
Miles, 43, competed in the pole vault in each of the last three summer Olympic Games. Now retired from competing, Miles said if there is a bad thing about being a part of the Olympic opening ceremonies, it’s that you don’t get to see them in their entirety.
“You miss most of the opening ceremony when you participate, so to kind of just sit and enjoy it will be nice,” he said.
When it comes to the Olympics, few Siouxlanders understand what goes on in the Games quite like Miles. Consistently one of the top pole-vaulters in the U.S. during his athletic career, the University of South Dakota grad finished fourth in Beijing, China in 2008 and seventh in Athens, Greece in 2004. He also qualified for the London games in 2012.
For Miles, the microscope of international attention, coupled with the Olympics’ deep history, is what makes the Games a unique environment. And a high-pressure one.
“Everyone pays attention to the Olympics, and all that starts to generate speed going in,” he said. “It’s hard not to get wrapped up in it.”
Fellow three-time Olympian and Morningside College grad A.G. Kruger agrees. Like Miles, Kruger qualified for the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games in the hammer throw and has competed on five world championship teams.
“When you think about it, a lot of times how you’re perceived as an athlete is how you do at the Olympic Games,” Kruger said.
Kruger, 37, nearly made this year’s Olympics during the U.S. trials in July, placing fourth overall. His throw was within 1 meter of qualifying him for the top three.
While his fourth Olympic bid may not have panned out, the Sheldon, Iowa, native said his previous three trips to the games are some of the most cherished memories of his life.
His favorite, he said, came during the 2004 opening ceremonies in Athens.
“I still remember in 2004, walking out in the opening ceremonies, and our whole team’s chanting, ‘U-S-A’ when we’re walking out of the tunnel,” he said. “Besides my kids being born and marrying my wife, it’s probably in my top three life experiences.”
For Miles, his first time on the Olympic squad is also near the top of his list.
“Athens in 2004 was my first Olympic Games, and I think the entire moment, right after the (qualifying) meet, when I knew I’d made the team is probably one of the things I’ll remember the most,” he said. “You almost spend a day or two feeling that way.”
Kruger and Miles currently coach together on the University of South Dakota’s track and field team, where Kruger coaches throwers and Miles coaches jumpers.
This year’s games in Rio de Janeiro have made headlines in the months leading up because of the Zika virus, dubious water quality and unrest in the country.
Kruger, who traveled to Rio to throw in the 2007 Pan-American Games, said with the possible exception of those swimming in open water, as an athlete he wouldn’t let current conditions keep him from going this year.
“Without a doubt, I’d feel safe,” he said. “Especially with the U.S., we’re going to have the right security and get food figured out.”
Miles said he can’t speak specifically to Rio’s situation since he hasn’t been following the conditions from an athlete’s perspective. However, he said he remembers troubles in previous years that took a backseat once the games began, including security concerns in Athens, the first Olympics after 9/11, and air quality concerns in China.
“I think no matter where you go for an Olympic Games, there’s always going to be some concern,” he said. “At the end of the day everything (typically) seems to move forward and be OK.”
Miles said he’ll enjoy watching athletes, such as Sioux City native Shelby Houlihan, compete in this year’s games.
Although, like the ceremonies, it will be on his own TV.
“I’ll be sitting downstairs watching it on the big screen,” he said. “There’s certainly going to be a lot less stress.”