Nichole Millage setting
Nichole Millage

Over the next few months, USA Volleyball will honor athletes who have decided to hang up their U.S. National Team jerseys. Whether they played on the court or in the sand, USA Volleyball thanks these athletes for their hard work and dedication over the years.

We continue the series by honoring Nichole Millage of the U.S. Women’s Sitting Team. Nichole is a four-time Paralympic medalist who started with the team in 2005, less than a year after the team won a surprise bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games. She was named an alternate for the team that competed at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, but then got the surprise call to play and won her second Paralympic gold medal.

Nichole Millage

Years with the U.S. Women’s Sitting Team:

Hometown: Champaign, Ill.

Position: Outside Hitter/Setter

Career Highlights: Won gold at the 2020 and 2016 Paralympic Games and silver at the 2012 and 2008 Paralympic Games… Three-time silver medalist at the Sitting Volleyball World Championships… Three-time gold medalist at the Parapan Zonal Championships… Three-time gold medalist at the Parapan American Games

Paralympic Games: 2008 Beijing (silver), 2012 London (silver), 2016 Rio (gold), 2020 Tokyo (gold)

How is retirement going? Do you feel retired?

“I do feel retired. I mean it’s such a weird feeling. I’m still on some of our team’s group texts. I can’t help looking at them out of curiosity. But I feel like it’s on to the next chapter.

“I’ve taken multiple vacations. I finally can use my time off from work for vacation as opposed to volleyball trips. That’s been nice. I’ve been asked to do some speaking engagements. I took a break from that because I wanted a break from everything. It’s fun to get to do that.”

How did you start sitting volleyball?

“I started in March of 2005. I had played standing volleyball before, in middle and high school and in a rec league. I had no idea what sitting volleyball was. I went to a camp in the summer of 2004. We were introduced to all different adaptive sports. I sat down and played sitting volleyball and thought, ‘this is interesting.’ It took Coach (Mike) Hulett until March to talk me into coming to a sitting volleyball camp. I know he wasn’t totally thrilled with me because I was so much older at 28. I remember taking off work to go. We were doing three practices a day at the first camp in Denver. After the first day I couldn’t even sit on the bed because my bottom hurt so much. The other girls told me I ‘have to stick with it, you won’t regret it.’ The rest is history.”

Did you accomplish your career goals?

“Absolutely. I feel like as an athlete, I have maybe a more unique story than most. I didn’t start sitting volleyball until I was 28. I had played sports my whole life and had been playing volleyball recreationally. Getting to go to four Paralympics was amazing. It’s not something I could have predicted. I feel extremely fortunate that I played as long as I did and accomplished what I did, and I feel I have nothing left. It’s awesome to end a career on such a high note. It was a crazy end note, but it all worked out.”

Nichole Millage wearing gold medal
Nichole Millage, center, stands on the medal stand at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games

You didn’t expect to go to the Tokyo Paralympic Games, but then you went as an alternate. What was that experience like?

“I didn’t originally make the roster. I was pretty devastated. I was sad that I wasn’t going to get to finish my career with my team the way I wanted to. It was a really hard month. Then, I found out I was going to go because of some changes in circumstances. It was an emotional roller coaster for sure.”

What has volleyball given you?

“Volleyball gave me everything, honestly. I moved to Oklahoma to train full time (at the University of Central Oklahoma). It was a new start and a chance to redo some things like finish college. I got my bachelor’s and master’s when I was there. I got to achieve on the volleyball court, but also personally. That changed the trajectory of my life. It was an opportunity to do something great, so I had to take it. It gave me this whole other extended family. It gave me a chance to travel the world, something I never thought I would get to do, getting to be a part of the accomplishments of my team.

“Learning not only the sport but also learning about life and people, and dealing with different personalities was a huge thing for me. I grew up an only child, and I wasn’t used to dealing with 10 other women, and some were just girls. We were all in different parts of our lives. It was a learning lesson for me to figure other people out. I think a lot of people will tell you I came a very long way as a person. That was one of the biggest lessons I took away.”

What career moments stand out most?

“I have some that might not be obvious but would be to the team members who were there with me. When we went to Ukraine in 2011, there were only seven who could go. It was a really long trip. We didn’t get our bags. There were three people to a room on the third floor. We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. We felt a little defeated from the get-go. We managed to pull through and won the whole tournament. It was such a fun achievement. I remember we were down in the fifth set 10-14 and ended up coming back and winning. They had a fun celebration with champagne and dinner and dancing. I think almost everyone won an award.

“The other highlight for me personally, because I was on the court playing at that time, was the semifinal in Beijing when we beat Netherlands for the first time ever. I see photos of that match everywhere showing the excitement on our faces. Losing to China (in the gold medal match) was not great at all. It took us two more Paralympics to achieve the goal of gold. I didn’t get to play in that game, but it doesn’t matter. It felt like I was out there with them because of how exciting it was.”

What are your strongest off-court memories?

“In the past few years, we’ve done a lot of team bonding activities. Of course, there are times after you have practice all day, the last thing you want to do is a bonding activity. We had a teammate who didn’t get to go to prom one weekend, so we had a prom. I feel like that really helped strengthen my relationships. There are always people you gravitate to more, but I will have relationships with them forever. My best memories are of getting to do those fun things with them off the court.”

How did USAV help you?

“I think the support over the years increased. The addition of a dietitian and sport psychologist and seeing how it helps the Paralympic side; valuing us as much as the other athletes, all of that definitely helped us improve. All those little pieces that USAV, the coaches and the staff did, all those things come together to help us get better as a team.”

Do you plan to stay involved in volleyball?

“I do. I don’t know how yet. I am staying involved now in that I am going to schools and talking about sitting volleyball and the Paralympics. After everything we went through last year, it feels nice to have a break from all of that. I still have a few teammates I talk to quite regularly. I am sure when the team ramps up again, it’s going to be weird not to be a part of it. Now, it feels nice to not be a part of it. I still want to go to Opens and playing sitting volleyball there. I can see myself going to a camp and helping out. I have no idea how I am going to feel as time goes on or where life is going to take me. It will always be a part of my life in some way.”

What are your plans for retirement?

“I’ve already been doing my thing with my career and my life. I have someone I have been dating for the past year and a half. That for me is the next step. I never really had that with volleyball. It’s fun to get to travel with him and share things with him. It was fun sharing the last year of volleyball with him. Having someone’s support during that time meant everything to me. I am cruising along in life. I just got a pool, and I always wanted a pool. What better retirement gift to myself? I can’t wait to hang out with my friends and enjoy my pool.

“A lot of sitting volleyball players have a career while we’re doing this. That’s a huge difference (between Paralympic volleyball players and Olympic). We’re not playing overseas. I’m not complaining because I love my job and I’m super grateful for it. I work for the City of Champaign (Illinois) as the environmental sustainability specialist in public works. I oversee our recycling programs, and organize and help host our electronic recycling event. When we received a medal in Tokyo made from recycled electronics, nothing could be more fitting. That is my favorite thing to tell people.”