In the 800 meter semi-final of the 2021 US Olympic Trials, Brandon Miller found himself in fourth position in a pack of seven with 200 meters left in the race.
Only the top three finishers were guaranteed to advance to Monday’s final and with big names in the pack, such as Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy and world champion Donovan Brazier, there was absolutely no room for error if Miller wanted a chance.
As the pack violently charged down the curve and onto the home stretch, arms and legs rigging with lactic acid, faces grimacing in pain, Miller started to feel himself go backwards.
First Clayton Murphy (the eventual winner of the race) swung around Miller as they hit the middle of the curve, moving Miller back to fifth. Then Jonah Koech passed Miller on his inside as they hit the final 100 meters, putting a third body in between Miller and the final. Finally, with 50 meters to go, Sean Dolan passed Miller on his outside, moving Miller back to his eventual seventh place finish.
Miller watched his dreams crumble before his eyes as he crossed the finish line. He would have to wait another four years before he could attempt to make another US Olympic team. But until then, he would have to sit with what he saw as a “failure.”
“I was so disappointed,” recalls Miller, “nobody wants to get knocked out.”
Seventh place finishes were not common for Miller, especially throughout his youth career. At just 13 years old Miller shocked the world, running an age group world record of 1:56.41 in the 800m and then again just one year later, now 14 years old, with a time of 1:51.23. Not only was Miller the best, he was the best at being the best. His times were untouchable for kids his age and the track world was quickly beginning to notice.
Articles, discussion threads, interviews, and even a documentary started to flood the American track and field media scene, all centered around Miller’s success at such an early age. Forums on pages like LetsRun™ started to rack up hundreds of comments about the teenager from Missouri. Some comments called him a prodigy, some claimed he was the next great American half miler… others were less friendly.
“People would say things like ‘oh he might burn out, he might do this, he might do that,’” recalls Miller, “and looking at those comments as a 13-year-old kid can really take a toll on your confidence.”
In one LetsRun forum in particular, titled “Brandon Miller Will Never Be World Class,” commenters claimed that his training was too rigorous at such an early age and that this would lead his progression as an athlete to plateau after high school. A claim that in reality held no basis.
Miller’s childhood track coach was his mother, Angela Miller, who made sure to avoid overtraining her son. “I think my mom did a great job of separating ‘mom’ from ‘coach,’” Says Miller. “Having somebody who really knows you as your coach is a really good thing. If I was really hurting during a workout but I didn’t want to tell her, she would always know so she could back me off or anything like that. I think my mom did a great job because she knew exactly who I was, not only as an athlete but as a person as well.”
And straying away from overtraining wasn’t Angela Miller’s only concern, either. Equally as important as training was ensuring that Miller had a normal and happy childhood. “My mom did a great job keeping me as a kid, giving me the upbringing a regular child would have.” Says Miller. “It wasn’t all track until I got to college. I always played different sports. My mom and my dad wanted me to have a childhood so [that] when I specialized in track it wouldn’t be something I was dreading.”
With such a great coach and support system, Miller’s success continued as he ran 1:49 in the 800m as just a freshman in high school and again as a sophomore. But in his junior year Miller would finally hit his first major athletic roadblock. After tearing his hamstring, Miller was out for the entire 2019 season. As he worked to get back to the track for his senior year, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down any hopes of redemption.
“I like to call those two years in high school the ‘waiting room period’ portion of my career,” explains Miller. “I was blessed to experience a lot of success as a kid and you can develop a sense of pride when that happens. Humility can go out of the window at times when you’re constantly being talked about. So I feel like those two years in my career were really God forming me into the man he wanted me to become in order to receive the blessings that were waiting for me. I came out a totally different man.”
Now as a freshman at Texas A&M, matured from his setbacks and finally ready to race again, success still did not return immediately for Miller.
“At the Texas, Texas A&M dual meet I got third,” Recalls Miller. “Devon Dixon took us out in 55 and I was at a point in my career where I was like ‘oh my gosh I’m racing Devon Dixon, he’s definitely gonna take us out in 50 point, it’s gonna be smooth.’ But he didn’t. And I remember after the race we were all disappointed and Coach Henry came up to me and said ‘you could be the best half-miler we have here, but we won’t know because you’re afraid to fail.’”
“So after that it was like ‘okay, my desire to succeed has to be greater than my fear of failure.’”
Just six weeks later at the SEC Conference Championships Miller did exactly that. Refusing to let his fear of failure win, Miller clocked an impressive 1:46.06 PR to win his prelim, leading the entire race wire to wire. Miller then followed his prelim with another PR of 1:45.95 to win the final, sending himself to the NCAA West Regional meet with the second fastest time in the country.
The PRs continued for Miller as he ran another blistering fast final at the NCAA West Regional meet, winning in a time of 1:45.57.
As Miller stood on the line of the 2021 NCAA Outdoor Championships 800m final, he was indeed a “new man.” No longer plagued by his fear of failure, Miller was willing to risk anything in pursuit of victory.
As the starter’s gun sounded Miller bolted off the line, finding himself in the lead at the break. Unrelenting, Miller kept the pace hot, leading himself and the only other athlete in the race willing to go with him, Isaiah Jewett, to a 400-meter split of 50.93.
As the pair rounded the third curve, Isaiah Jewett swung around Miller while the two continued to distance themselves from the rest of the pack.
“They’ve developed quite the gap here,” said the announcer as the pair marched down the back stretch and into the final curve. The rest of the athletes in the field were now almost 10 meters behind.
Still not finished, Miller moved into the second lane as they came onto the homestretch, now just off of the shoulder of Isaiah Jewett… “And Brandon Miller says ‘I’m not done here… I’m not gonna just give it to ya,’” says the announcer.
Still locked in their positions, the pair came through the line with Isaiah Jewett in first at 1:44.68 and Miller less than three tenths of a second back in second at 1:44.97.
For the first time in his career, Miller had broken the 1:45 barrier in the 800m, finishing second in the NCAA, and doing it all while only a freshman in college.
It seemed as though momentum was finally back on Miller’s side and he was ready to pick up where he had left off. But as the story would tell, one more roadblock awaited him at the US Olympic Trials.
Failing to make the US Olympic team was just as frustrating as his two years spent unable to race back in 2019 and 2020. But much like that experience, it wasn’t lost on Miller how his frustration could catapult him to the next level.
“I actually think the main contributor to my success this year was the Olympic Trials last year,” says Miller. “I remember coming out of that race like ‘man, I can run with these dudes.’ So after that it was like, ‘I’m done waiting my turn, I know it’s my time.’”
“A lot of athletes have it, no matter what sport you’re playing, where you experience failure and now it’s like how do you come back from that failure?”
This year Miller has shown the track world exactly what it means to come back from failure strong. With a world junior record in the 600 meters of 1:15.49, an American collegiate record in the indoor 800m of 1:45.24, and an Indoor NCAA Championship title in the 800m, there’s no question that Brandon Miller has once again transcended as an athlete.
“I definitely think failure is huge when it comes to success because it’s that feeling that you don’t want to get again,” says Miller. “
After trials I was tired of being overlooked, I was tired of being undervalued, so now the mentality this year is ‘I’m the one.’”