BLOOMINGTON — Take a look at Cody Miller standing on a pool deck and something doesn’t look quite right.
He has a sunken chest. It’s a condition called Pectus Excavatum, a congenital chest wall deformity in which several ribs and the sternum grow abnormally, producing a concave or caved-in appearance in the anterior chest wall.
And yet the condition certainly hasn’t slowed Miller down. In fact, in many ways it has served as a motivator, pushing him to the highest levels of his sport.
It all came to fruition last month when the former Indiana University swimming standout made the United States Olympic team in the 100-meter breaststroke.
Miller is one of 11 IU swimmers and divers that have qualified for the Olympics and will represent six countries. Miller is one of six former or current IU athletes representing the United States. The last time IU had swimmers representing the university in the Olympics was 1976.
Miller, who graduated from IU in 2015, is proud that all of his work has begun to pay off. He said making the Olympics clearly has made all of that training worth it.
“Swimming is a grueling sport,’’ he said. “There’s a reason why this doesn’t happen except every four years. Swimming is hard. You dive in at 5 a.m., you swim laps for two-and-a-half hours and you stare at the bottom of the pool. And then you do that for years in hopes of doing something really cool that one day someone will care about.’’
Some wonder how Miller has been able to overcome his chest condition and compete at the highest of levels. Did anyone ever suggest that maybe swimming wasn’t the best sport for him? Actually, he said it was the opposite.
“If you looked at pictures of me at 10, you couldn’t really tell and then 11 and 12 you could start telling and 13 and 14 for sure,’’ Miller said. “When it started caving inwards my mom had it checked out and inspected and (the doctors) thought the swimming could actually help because swimming broadens your chest and your shoulders.’’
When he got to IU and had his first team physical his freshman year, he was diagnosed as an asthmatic.
“They did a bunch of tests on me and they said, ‘You can’t breathe very well,’ but that’s independent of the chest condition,’’ Miller said. “I have respiratory issues. The indentation puts stress on my sternum, and it has some diminished lung capacity. So my maximum lung capacity is slightly reduced. The tests that they ran were slightly inconclusive, but they felt it was anywhere from 12 to 20 percent.
“I always kind of knew growing up that I couldn’t breathe really well, but I just figured I was going to have to make the best of it.’’
Indiana swimming coach Ray Looze, who has also been selected as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic team, said Miller is one of the toughest people he knows.
“He kind of has a chip on his shoulder,’’ Looze said. “We’ve talked a little about making sure that chip remains there. Honestly, in a weird way, I think some of the things that people may look at with Cody whether it’s his size or his sunken chest, I think those are his strongest attributes.’’
Miller has had plenty to overcome on his personal road to Rio. The chest condition and asthma weren’t the only things. At 5-foot-10, he was also one of the smaller swimmers competing in national competitions. He said he liked Looze’s "chip on the shoulder" comment.
“I definitely feel like for a long time I had to prove myself,’’ Miller said. “For sure at the NCAAs, more often than not, I was the smallest guy in the field. And then having the diminished lung capacity and the dented chest and what not, a big part of it was just overcoming my physical appearance and to stop being self conscious about the way I look. I look kind of funny. People see me in a suit and it’s like they’ve never seen a chest like that before. And it looks weird. It looks like I have a gaping hole in my chest.
“But I feel in a lot of ways it kind of helped me because I knew I had to do all of the little things right.’’
Miller said some of those little things include never missing a workout, eating healthy and always getting 8 to 10 hours of sleep. He said on a Saturday night he’s in bed by 9:30 p.m.
“It’s like I’m an old man,’’ said the 24-year-old Miller. “But it paid off. So I’m pretty happy about it.’’