He may be 64, but former Olympian and renowned Fijian decathlete Albert Miller can still vividly remember the bits and pieces of his childhood that helped shape him to the person he is today.
Miller said growing up on their family copra farm in the bushes of Nadivakarua Estate, Bua, overlooking the Savusavu Harbour laid a solid foundation for his life.
The current decathlon record holder said he believed the “typical’ village lifestyle prepared him mentally and physically for the challenges and trials that led him to establish his name in Fiji’s athletics and sports history books.
“As soon as the school holidays started, all five of my siblings and I would be at the farm collecting coconuts for my father,” the father of three shared.
“That was the life we knew. From collecting firewood to going fishing, these are some of the experience that I’m thankful to have lived through because it taught me a lot.”
From waking up at the crack of dawn to attend to their family vegetable farm to making their way to school along bushy tracks, Miller said he always found village life fun as a young child.
“In those days, there were no roads where we used to live, so we would be walking on horse tracks in order to get to school. Even though it was a hard life, it was a fun and exciting one.”
Some of his best experiences from his childhood were transporting copra from their farm to Savusavu via a fibreglass boat as there were no roads back then.
“We didn’t have a boat, so we’d just hire a relative’s boat to get to Savusavu. I am really blessed to have lived that lifestyle because every day was fun for us back then.”
According to stories shared by his parents, their forefathers came from Bath in England and settled in Levuka, which was a thriving trade center at the time.
“According to what my parents told me, our forefathers came from England and settled in Levuka before some of them moved to Savusavu. The estate where we have our copra farm was bought by my father in the 1950s.”
Miller got his first taste of competitive athletics during his years at Levuka Public School from 1973 to 1976 where he was the junior, intermediate, senior and open grade champion in the high jump event.
“I attended different schools through my high school days because two of my sisters were teachers. So wherever they were posted, I would live with them and attend that school.”
During that period, Miller crossed paths with Robert Luther – a former United States high jumper who was a Peace Corps volunteer. Luther was teaching at Savusavu Secondary School and noticed Miller’s high jump skills.
“Two of my younger sisters were schooling there, so that’s how we met and he found out that I also did high jump.”
Luther would train Miller during the holidays in preparation for school competitions before offering him a private scholarship.
“In my last year at school, he asked me if I wanted to school in the US and take up athletics there. So after a few months before going to the US, I briefly worked on a boat here in Savusavu to earn some money before I left Fiji.”
Miller left for the US in 1979 and missed the South Pacific Games in Suva after being selected into the national squad for the high jump event. “I left Fiji that year to attend college in Sacramento, missing out on the SPG that was supposed to be my first call to national duty.”
He attended Sacramento City College for two years before moving up to California State University of Sacramento for another three years. Miller continued with the high jump, but found the competition to be quite overwhelming and decided to change his event.
“Athletes there would start jumping at two meters while my best was around 1.90 meters at the time.” After speaking with his college coach, they decided he would try out the decathlon.
“So I had to learn all these other events that were involved in the decathlon like shot put, 1500 meters, high jump and 400 meters. Apart from all those events, the toughest I had to learn was the pole vault.”
In his first state conference competition, he broke the Fiji record for the decathlon event. This was when he knew that decathlon could be something he could excel in.
“I continued to get better over the years in various college and university meets until I competed for the last time in 1983.”
At the National College Athletic Association Championship in division two that year, Miller proved his worth when he came third in the competition, breaking his previous record.
“I wanted to prove to all my coaches and team mates that even though I may have come from a small island in the Pacific, I can compete at that level. I managed to get into third place. That’s number three in the whole US.”
Miller still holds the record in the decathlon event at the California State University of Sacramento to this day and believes that 1983 was his peak year.
“There were many ups and downs during those five years, but I enjoy taking up challenges. It’s something that keeps me going.”
That same year, Miller returned to Fiji and competed at the SPG in Samoa.
“Unfortunately, I had to fund my own way back home because I had no sponsors at the time. I was able to hold a ‘kati’ with the help of some of my coaches and was able to pay for my flight home.”
In Samoa, his first time at an SPG, he broke the decathlon record winning a gold medal and a silver each in the 110m hurdles and 4x400m relay.
“We ran on sand tracks in Samoa and I think this really impacted my performance but I was able to achieve my goal of breaking the record.”
He went on to secure a spot in the 1984 Olympic Games squad to Los Angeles, California, but injured himself during training.
“I was really looking forward to the 1984 Olympics because I knew this was going to be the pinnacle of my career. But I got injured just a few days before my event and was unable to finish the event.”
Miller said he was devastated because he had been recording impressive times while training in Fiji and was looking forward to winning a medal.
This was the first time in his career that he did not complete a full decathlon.
He attended the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Scotland where he had the honour of meeting the late Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth II, something he still remembers to this day.
The following year he again made the national squad for the SPG in New Caledonia and defended his title as champion in the decathlon event and even managed to break his 1983 record. Miller scooped a gold medal in the decathlon event and another medal in the 110m hurdles.
He again made the cut for the national squad to the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games that was first held in Seoul, Korea, and Barcelona in Spain after the 1991 SPG in Papua New Guinea.
“I came back pretty strong in 1991, breaking my SPG record again for the third time winning a gold and bronze medal.”
Before that, Miller returned to the US where he took up athletics coaching after attaining permanent residency there.
In late 1993, he returned and worked at the University of the South Pacific in Laucala where he started off as a Sports and Recreation Officer before conducting lectures in Physical Education.
He spent almost 20 years at USP. More than 10 years later, after his first international tournament, he showed Fiji that he still had what it takes when he won a silver medal in the 1994 Mini Games before he finally retired after the 1995 SPG in Tahiti.
“I pulled a hamstring before my event but I managed to win a silver. I was heartbroken because I wanted to end my career on a high. But that’s the life of an athlete, so I just accepted fate and continued on.”
After retiring, he progressed into coaching, taking the 1996 national squad to the Olympics in Georgia, US. Since then, he has never looked back and continued in coaching and would often travel and advocate on the benefits of sports to schools around Fiji. Miller was able to secure a Bachelor’s in Physical Education and a Master’s in Social Work while he was attending university in the US.
“When I visit schools and speak to students, I tell them I wasn’t a very bright student, but I managed to get to the top through hard work and perseverance. I only passed my English paper, but now I have masters and degrees.”
He met his wife, Litiana, in 1999 when he coached her to the SPG in Guam where she bagged a gold medal.
Litiana, originally from Natua in Seaqaqa, Cakaudrove, clocked a record 11.92 time in the 100 meters event in Guam that year.
Miller has represented Fiji at multiple international tournaments, including four Olympic Games in a career that spanned more than 20 years.
He certainly has come a long way from being just a typical young boy living in the bushes of Nadivakarua and has managed to travel around the globe through athletics.
Today he is a Development Officer for Fiji Athletics and works closely with disabled athletes and the Fiji Disabled Society.
“Just a word of advice to all the young people out there. Always be willing to work hard and enjoy what you do. Focusing on your goals and striving to achieve them should be your top priority.”
Miller has sacrificed a lot for the country by putting his life and work on hold when chosen to represent the country.
The great works, sacrifices and commitment of athletes such as himself should be appreciated and not forgotten because their involvement in sports has shaped it to what it is today and paved the way for thousands of youngsters to pursue their dreams.