Among the bundled-up students entering Harvard University's Lehman Hall, Montana Miller was the only one wearing a faded Acapulco suntan. Paler students might have suspected a skier, but what they really had was a high diver back from Mexico's famous cliffs.
Late last year, Miller and five other women became Acapulco's first-ever female cliff divers. In her words, it was "a leap of faith, " one which led to selection as the ABC News Person of the Week in December.
A student at Harvard and former varsity diver, Miller officially collected $1,000 in finishing last, yet in her mind, placement was entirely secondary to what she and the others accomplished. They faced down fear to safely compete in a venue that Miller acknowledges is "very, very scary."
"I did it to make history, to be a hero, to make a good story; I certainly didn't do it to be terrified," she said.
In a sense, she did it for academic research in social anthropology, too, since she is studying risk-taking, performance, and stunt subcultures, such as those in the high-diving and circus worlds. She is a trained trapeze artist herself and still performs a story-telling solo aerial act designed for youth audiences.
Recently she turned down an invitation to join a high-diving show touring China because the organizers offered no workers compensation. She continues to practice diving, working out with Harvard's team despite having relinquished her collegiate eligibility by diving for dollars.
Miller's story is filled with surprising turns. To help tell it, she arrives for an interview with various materials, including a copy of the book "Circus Dreams" she and her mother, Kathleen Cushman, coauthored. The book tells the story of Miller's experiences as a budding aerialist in France, where she studied at the French National College of Circus Arts. The project, she says, helped convince Harvard that she hadn't gone soft intellectually four years after taking her SAT exams.
The daughter of town newspaper publishers and a gymnast in high school, she graduated disinclined to enter academia right away. Three-ring American circuses didn't appeal to her, but a visit to see the Big Apple Circus opened her eyes to an interesting alternative, the European circus scene. Big Apple performers suggested she look into training in France, where circus performance is considered an art and small, theater-style circuses thrive.
"[Europeans] bring something of themselves to the act, it's like poetry," Miller says admiringly. With little more than her gymnastics background and the ability to speak "high school French," she auditioned and was accepted into the French circus college, where she eventually was placed with a trapeze troupe.
After a year she was doing some of the harder tricks, but it was difficult to get working papers on a student visa and one circus assignment proved particularly distasteful. Miller returned to the US and found work with the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco, which she enjoyed. When the company hit the financial skids, though, she began her college studies.
Looking to remain active, she approached Harvard diving coach Keith Miller about trying out for the team. "I needed an acrobatic release," she explains.
Although neither a diver nor a "water person," her knowledge of in-flight body mechanics made her a logical walk-on candidate. She was a fast learner.
Her collegiate athletic career was interrupted, however, when a truck ran a red light and hit her while cycling. She missed nearly two years of training. Once back, she was introduced to yet another form of aerial work - the high dive, which is featured at various amusement parks.
Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire hired Miller last summer and found her a willing pupil. Eventually she worked up to diving from 80 feet into what she says looked like a "teacup." The highest dive in Olympic-style, competitive diving is 33 feet. Moving up in five-foot increments, Miller says, takes weeks.
The descent, she says, is a blur. "When I try to remember feelings I can't. You're just falling so fast. I have a vague concept of looking for the water, but it's not the soaring feeling that I got from trapeze."
High diving and cliff diving may seem similar, but Miller says there is one important difference: In cliff diving you leap out as far as possible to clear the rocks, but in high diving a straight drop is critical.
In Acapulco, Miller and five other, more- experienced high divers dove from 65 feet, the men from 87. Rock-climbing to the diving perch was a featin itself. Ideally, one waits for a wave that brings the water's depth to 12 feet in the ravine below. Otherwise, it's only about seven feet.
Asked if she plans a return to Acapulco, Miller says, "I haven't made up my mind. It would be cool to go back and win it, but the competitive side of me is not the most dominant side of me. The important thing was to be a part of history."