By Sen. John Thune
The University of South Dakota’s (USD’s) Derek Miles has been known for a lot of things over the years, including being a father, husband, athlete, coach, and Olympian, just to name a few. Now, nearly a decade after competing in the Olympic Games in Beijing, China, he will be forever and finally known as an Olympic medalist. While nothing can replace standing on the podium in Beijing, I think Derek would agree that getting to share this special moment with friends, family, and the USD community will be a memory not soon forgotten.
This particular chapter in Derek’s story begins in 2008 when he qualified for the men’s pole vault competition at the Beijing Olympic Games. It wasn’t Derek’s first trip to the Olympics either. He’d earned several top-three finishes at various events throughout his career, including the Olympic trials, but never at the Olympic Games. Derek competed hard in Beijing, but missed the podium by one position, placing fourth overall. Derek will tell you that he wishes he’d just beaten the third-place finisher outright, but he would eventually receive what was rightfully his.
It wasn’t until eight years after the Beijing Games ended that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) reanalyzed samples and determined that the Ukrainian athlete, who originally placed third and took Derek’s spot on the podium, used performance-enhancing substances that gave him an unfair advantage. He was subsequently disqualified by the IOC for using banned substances.
After the IOC took action, the third-place spot belonged to Derek, at least on paper. While knowing he’d placed third was heartening, he was still missing something important: the medal that should have hung around his neck in 2008.
I’d followed Derek’s career as an athlete and then as a coach at USD, but I wasn’t aware that he hadn’t received his medal until I met Michael Phelps in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. He was in town to testify before Congress about the perils and challenges of performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics. Phelps knows a thing or two (or 28) about earning an Olympic medal, and I was impressed that he was willing to fight for fellow athletes like Derek.
I quickly talked to my staff on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the U.S. Olympic Committee and other athletic organizations, about Derek’s story. Shortly thereafter, I wrote to the IOC to try to help right this wrong. After some hard work and persistence by my staff, we heard from the IOC that it had located an authentic Beijing bronze medal and would send it to its rightful owner in Vermillion, South Dakota.
Derek exemplifies what it means to be a true athlete. He’s dedicated to the sport and to the men and women – young and old, present and future – who make it what it is. I’m so honored that I could play a small role in helping to close this long and unfairly open-ended chapter in his life.
Today, Derek is mentoring and coaching the next generation of potential Olympic athletes at USD. As for being a part of the USD community and living in South Dakota, Derek summed it up well: “Every time you turn a corner, there’s someone there that’s going to help you. Whether it’s your track coach, or your senator, or your representative bodies, or your family, or your friends, or your coaches – it’s truly fortunate to have fallen into this place, and you guys are probably stuck with me. I’m not sure I’ll ever leave.” I doubt I’m the only one who’s glad to hear that good news.