Nearly every day for the better part of three years started at 5 a.m. for Heather Miller-Koch. A 45-minute subway ride through Manhattan to the lone indoor track in New York City followed by training for the 2012 U.S. Olympic track and field trials.
Miller-Koch, who competes in the heptathlon, would hop back on the train to her home, shower quickly, then work the noon to 8 p.m. shift at the Hospital for Special Surgery as part of her nursing residency. Sometimes, another training session or lift followed.
Although Miller-Koch, a Columbus, Wisconsin native and 2005 graduate of Columbus High School, failed to qualify for the 2012 Games in London, finishing ninth at the trials, she chose to scale back her time as a full-time nurse and begin training more.
“I tried to improve my situation and improve my training schedule each year (since then),” Miller-Koch said by phone from the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California.
A move was the first order of business. After all, New York isn’t the best place to practice javelin, which is one of the seven events of the heptathlon. So, Miller-Koch and her husband, Ryan Koch, who also serves as her coach, moved back to Minnesota near St. Cloud State, where they attended college.
Miller-Koch began working part time, though she still put in 32 hours a week at United Hospital in St. Paul in 2013. The next year, she scaled back her workload again, working 20 hours per week, while focusing more on training.
For the past year, Miller-Koch and Ryan have been living and training full-time in Chula Vista, just outside of San Diego, at the Olympic Training Center.
The move and decision to solely concentrate on training has paid off. Miller-Koch placed second in the heptathlon at the Olympic trials in July, sealing her spot in Rio and the opportunity to compete for Team USA she had worked for since those early mornings in the Big Apple.
The heptathlon is scheduled for the first two days of track and field competition (Aug. 12 and 13) at the Games, which officially begin Friday with the Opening Ceremony.
When Miller-Koch was in high school and even college, the Olympic dream was never on her mind.
“In Columbus, that was a basketball city,” Miller-Koch said. “We played basketball all the time. Track was just something to kind of keep me in shape, keep my feet up for basketball. I was just not at that level. In college, I kind of grew more into that I guess, but still it was just a steady climb from college to get to this point.”
Miller-Koch attended St. Cloud State as a two-sport athlete. On her recruiting visit, she met Ryan, also a two-sport athlete who played football and competed in the decathlon.
Ryan is a Madison native and graduated from LaFollette High School.
She redshirted one season because she knew it would take five years to complete her nursing degree, and during that redshirt year, her coaches concocted the idea of competing in the heptathlon.
Ryan, a few years older than Miller-Koch, had returned to St. Cloud to train for the decathlon and also served as a volunteer coach. Coaching came natural to him, his wife said.
“He’s always had that in him,” she said.
Miller-Koch had previously only competed in the long jump and never considered the heptathlon. As their relationship grew — “We had so much in common,” Miller-Koch said — so did Miller-Koch’s potential as a heptathlete.
She gave up her final season of basketball to focus on track and that choice paid dividends. She went on to claim the NCAA Division II heptathlon title in 2010.
Ryan said he gets the question of how he switches from husband mode to coach mode — and vice versa — often.
But he sees the dual role as a bonus.
For example, he said, they could be sitting at home and decide to pop in some technical videos and have a film session.
“Heather and I see very similarly on this,” Ryan said. “We see it as a benefit. The two of us form a team that 99 percent of her competitors don’t have.
“They’re not married to their coach. They don’t have 24/7 access to their coach. They don’t have the flexibility in training schedule that we have being husband and wife.”
The results of basically every heptathlon hinge on a competitor’s performance in the final event, the 800-meter run. That happens to be Miller-Koch’s least favorite event, but over the years, she’s made it one of her best events through hard workouts.
“It always comes down to the 800,” Miller-Koch said. “So I definitely had to step up my game in that event and I think that’s what has helped a lot.”
Miller-Koch’s 800 performance at the U.S. trials was good enough to place her among the top three finishers, guaranteeing a place on the Rio roster.
Since the 2012 trials, she’s shaved eight seconds off her time from 2 minutes, 15 seconds to 2:07, she said, and the 800 is now one of her best events, though she admits she’s still not too fond of it.
As Miller-Koch reflects on her current situation, she realizes becoming an Olympian probably wouldn’t have come to fruition had it not been for Ryan back at St. Cloud.
“He thought I had enough of what it took to be a heptathlete,” Miller-Koch said. “I was really excited about it. I like the idea of all-around events, proving who is the best athlete — not just the best jumper, the fastest sprinter, but that you could do everything.”