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Buried inside Ashley Miller is a fighting spirit that not even Lyme disease can crush.
She surrendered to its control six years ago, when she was hospitalized with an extreme flare-up. She vowed that she was done being challenged by chronic fatigue, muscle pain, and migraines. So, she began to tap into holistic remedies.
When she slowed down to evaluate what was best for her, she ultimately began to discover an unusual solution to her anguish: boxing.
Miller has been trying to overcome persistent long-term Lyme disease symptoms for decades. She contracted the tick-borne illness when she was a teenager. It’s when she entered the boxing ring that she began healing in all areas of her life.
“I was really sick for a long time,” Miller said. “I didn’t think I would be athletic again. I started coaching and thought I was done, that my physical capabilities were done. I wanted to give back to the high school, where I played field hockey.”
There is treatment for Lyme disease, but it’s not a cure-all for everyone. The 34-year-old took matters into her own hands after her last hospitalization. She began with acupuncture, massages, and reflexology. She paid attention to her body’s rest and recovery cues. She adjusted her diet and focused on doing breathwork.
“Meditation has been one of the most powerful tools I now use to strengthen myself physically, mentally, spiritually, and athletically,” Miller said.
Boxing intrigued her. So, she gave it a go. The adrenaline rush to her brain helped to improve her immune system, she said.
“Boxing has been the best workout I’ve ever had,” she said. “It’s helped me to keep muscle on. It’s decreased my migraines because I get more blood flow to my head. It helps with blood circulation and my muscles aren’t sore. Boxing has taught me I can control my breathing. It’s taught me that that’s essential. I’m able to control my anxiety. Boxing has pushed me to control my breathing in a way that no other sport has. I practice this on a daily basis, not just when I’m at the boxing ring.”
Miller played field hockey at West Perry and Bloomsburg University. She started coaching at West Perry four years ago with head coach Wendy Byers. The duo climbed the ranks together, starting in middle school. They now coach the high school program.
“When I got sick, I didn’t know who I was anymore,” Miller said. “I didn’t know how to be an athlete, so I started coaching. And then being around the kids, the kids healed me in a way I didn’t expect. Sometimes it’s easier to heal your wounds when you see them bleeding within someone else. They activated me all over again. The kids inspired me to never want to give up.”
Lyme disease is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About three years ago, Miller entered the boxing ring. She instantly took to it.
“I don’t mind not being lady-like at all,” she said. “That’s just fine. This, boxing, isn’t even a normal sport. It’s an art and a form of self-meditation and self-evolution and exploration of your soul. Everyone who gets in the ring, I think that’s how many people feel.”
Boxing activated her “warrior spirit” that she allowed to go “dormant for a very long time,” Miller said.
“Mentally, if I can control my mind, I feel like I can control my body,” she said. “If you can’t control your mind, you’re not fit to be in the ring. I used to only control my body and let my mind be secondary. Boxing taught me it was the other way around. You have to control your mind in order to control your body. It gave me the greatest sense of empowerment. And, I feel whole inside myself. I’ve been compartmentalizing. I’ve assimilated my mind and body into one being.”
Miller is training to possibly compete in the first USA Boxing Women’s Championships July 22 to 29 in Toledo, Ohio. The event is being held at the Glass City Center, where there will be four rings and up to 1,000 people attending. All age groups are invited to the week-long event, which is also open to “novice” and “female boxers, including non-citizens and boxers from International Federations that are currently in good standing,” according to USA Boxing.
“She’s very dedicated,” Miller’s boxing coach Claudie Kenion said. “I have to go off of how she is feeling. She has Lyme disease. I got to work with that. Certain days, we can’t do certain things. I’ve got to take that into consideration. And, with her, she needs one-on-one training to build her confidence level. I’ve got to build her confidence up. Once she builds her confidence up, she’ll get better.”
Miller isn’t a hard yes to attend the July event yet, Kenion said.
“It’s an all-women, the first ever, event,” he said. “They have a beginner’s division, which is awesome ‘cause at national tournaments, they don’t have a beginner’s. So, that’s why I want to take my novices like her, because they have a beginner’s division. Depending on how she does between now and the event, I’ll take her. If she’s not looking good in sparring, I’ll pull her.”
Applying pressure on Miller isn’t part of Kenion’s training process, he said. Kenion, who owns fit4ever365LLC and trains at Capital Punishment Boxing Club, said the club and Ralo Boxing Promotions is hosting a boxing show at the Harrisburg gym on July 8, 137 N. 10th Street. Kenion said he wants to see how Miller fights at the event and then he’ll decide if she’s going to Ohio.
“When she first came here, she was very uptight, very intense,” he said. “I had to build that confidence, make her relax. Boxing is about relaxing. When your tense like that, I mean, you burn a lot of energy, and you can’t think straight. And, when you relax, you start to see things coming. And now she’s starting to get relaxed. And the more she does these drills, she gets more relaxed and builds confidence. Spar half speed and then full speed, that’s how you train a fighter. You have to communicate with your coach. Certain days, I shut her down for the day. You can hurt them if you push them, you have to work around them. I cut her off some days; you’re done, go home.”
Miller’s training includes running sprints, hills, stadium stairs, and distance. Her weight training is a lot of dead lifts, power cleans, kettle bell swings, squats, leg press and rowers. She’s focused on her core by doing “tons of abs.” And, her footwork is being ramped up.
“My IQ,” Miller said. “It’s something Claudie works with me. I’m an intellectual fighter and athlete. I want to know why I’m throwing and why I’m moving the way I’m moving. I need to know why in order to know how. And he works you through that. He helps you with your fighter IQ. If you don’t have a good fight IQ, I think it just makes you automatically feel incompetent when you get in a ring. Claudie works with you.”
West Perry field hockey
The last time Miller competed at a high level was when she played Division II field hockey at Bloomsburg.
“I never thought I would be here again,” she said. “When you stop doing college sports, you’re pretty much done. I never thought I’d be able to go to a national level as an athlete again. It’s a different head space and I’m excited to put myself there.”
Coaching helped to restart her personal motivation, she said. She sees herself in her girls. When she’s coaching, she tries to help them to see the bigger picture, which is something she said she wished had been given to her when she was younger.
“Watching the kids and girls that I care about push themselves, I tell them you have to preserve yourself or you won’t be able to help the team,” she said. “Working that through with them, allowed me to help heal myself. I realized I had to be a living example of it. I believe that’s what it is. A great athlete is someone who can sacrifice themselves for the greater good. I think the great ones do. I think you have to learn to use that as a tool and not let it become the death of you.”
Miller said she tries to create boundaries around her personal development and interactions with the athletes.
“I use the parts of my soul that fit into their lives,” she said. “That’s what’s so freeing. I let all of my issues just dissolve and I’m just present with them.”
West Perry field hockey made it to the first round of the 2022 Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class 1A tournament. It’s the farthest the team has made it in the program’s history. The Mustangs compete in District 3.
“Every year, I use the same quote and the same essence,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Prepare for external battle, seek internal peace.’ It’s OK to be a warrior. It’s OK to be relentless, and there’s a time and a place for that.”
There are many valued lessons learned through sport, Miller said. The life coach, who has a master’s in mental health counseling, said it’s because of sports that she has been able to survive unbearable personal tsunamis.
One of her closest high school friends died by suicide while she was attending Bloomsburg, she said. He struggled with an opioid addiction. She founded her life coaching business based upon losing him and used his initials as part of its name – “Own Your Destiny Coaching.”
“I thought about it a lot,” she said. “I’m very intentional with everything I do.”
Losing her friend was devasting, Miller said. Twenty years ago, she said her generation was at the forefront of the opioid epidemic. It was a time of “partying” and “having fun” that didn’t reveal the consequences of the highly destructive drug.
“My generation was the beginning of the epidemic and the drag craze,” she said. “It’s nobody’s fault. Everyone thought they were just partying and having fun. The people who got lost in it didn’t have moral issues, even though they thought they did. They were made to believe that they did. They thought it was their fault, but it really wasn’t. Everyone can make a difference. Part of that is making yourself vulnerable to help someone else. That person is already vulnerable and fighting for survival. They usually hide their suffering. They are already wounded.”
When Miller, whose fighter name is ‘The Ghost,’ steps into a boxing ring, everything fades to black, she said. She looks at her competitor not as an enemy, but as a life-shaper.
She’s still trying to figure out how to be both disciplined and out of control in the ring. Her bottled-up emotions from losing her friend and defeating her chronic pains are what drive her to succeed.
“Outside of the ring, I try to be compassionate and use all the pain and darkness to make the world brighter,” she said. “In the ring, I allow myself to take back what was taken from me.”