The referee slaps the mat to stop the wrestling match, signaling a pin, and the winner does something totally out of character.
She screams and raises both arms to flex her massive muscles at the crowd. She never does this after matches. She rarely shows emotion, win or lose. She just leaves the mat.
This time Nari Miller flexes, and she screams, and goodness, look at that expression. She looks joyful and fiercely determined, so many emotions pouring out in one snapshot.
It is the pose of a triumphant athlete who never wanted to be an athlete. She joined the wrestling team four years ago only because she wanted an extracurricular activity to put on college applications.
Inside that pose is a teenage girl who pushes herself harder than she could have imagined, physically and emotionally, all the while finding self-discovery in a sport once exclusive to boys.
When she started, she could barely run without stopping to catch her breath. Wrestling made her anxiety spike, causing her to vomit during matches. She once held her mom's hand and bawled after a particularly strenuous practice.
Now here she is, flexing to the crowd after pinning her opponent Feb. 19 to earn a spot in the inaugural Minnesota girls-only wrestling state tournament later this week.
"Wrestling reminds me that I'm alive every day," she says.
That awareness is a testament to Title IX, the federal law passed 50 years ago that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education and sports. A girl without an athletic background not only finds her place in sports but rises to become a recipient of the prestigious Athena Award as her school's top senior girl athlete competing in three sports: wrestling, football and track and field.
Fifty years ago, Miller would not have been encouraged to compete in sports. Fifty years ago, Miller would not have seen any sign she should try.
Fifty years later, Miller is a champion pursuing another championship.
Title IX enabled her participation. Nari Miller, herself, enabled her success.
She chose wrestling first, a sport known for machismo, and ascended to become varsity captain. She wrestles in the 152-pound weight class, which pits her mostly against boys, who often bring a strength advantage onto the mat. She had a 5-5 record against boys in varsity matches this season.
A new football coach took over at Edison two years ago and allowed Miller to choose her position. She picked defensive tackle.
"Three technique," she says more specifically.
Nobody laughed at her request, nor when the coach asked Miller to play running back to close out a game.
She occasionally receives a condescending smirk from a male opponent. One team refused to wrestle her this season, citing a school policy that prohibits boys from wrestling girls. She lets nothing obscure her view of what's important, what motivates her and gives her strength and courage — to find the best version of herself. To be that athlete flexing her muscles.
"She's something special," Edison wrestling coach Troy Wellington says. "She's different."
A late-December tournament in Rogers showed several sides of Nari Miller. She and friends provided sturdy encouragement as teammates competed, and she turned pensive as her own time to compete approached. That day her assignment was dramatic: She wrestled St. Michael-Albertville's Cole Becker, a defending state champion who was ranked first in the state in their weight class. Becker pinned Miller in the first period. "She did better than some of the other kids I've wrestled," Becker said.
Miller, 17, sits in a folding chair staring at the mat. It's senior night in early February, the last home match of her career. She has a serious look on her face, a look that says she's ready to pounce.
She made weight after being 2 pounds over the 152-pound limit at the end of practice the previous day. The referee did flag her for having fingernails that were too long during pre-match inspection, so she stood over a trash can and clipped them. This is not uncommon, even for boys.
Miller's adrenaline is racing when someone sneaks up from behind and gives her a kiss on the cheek.
It's her mom, holding a bouquet of flowers. Gina Palmer-Handy was supposed to be at work, but her boss found out about senior night and told her to leave immediately so she could get there.
Her daughter's face melts into a smile as she jumps out of her chair to hug her.
It's only fitting that her final home match starts with a surprise. There have been a few of those.
The first came freshman year, when Miller told her mom that she was joining the wrestling team. The second one was even more startling to Mom.
"I thought she was wrestling girls," she says.
Her daughter kept that part a secret. The single mom was already uneasy about the youngest of her two children participating in wrestling. Then she showed up to watch the first match and saw her daughter's opponent run onto the mat.
Wait, that's a boy, she said aloud.
An Edison coach was sitting near her.
Yeah, she wrestles boys, he said.
In some ways, it made perfect sense. Miller was an independent spirit as a child. She never followed the crowd.
She had a creative nature about her. She surprised relatives with her beautiful artwork and stencil designs. She loved to dance and sing.
She joined a dance studio briefly and tried basketball, too, but she found no reason to continue with either. High school sports were never a consideration until a counselor mentioned wrestling as an extracurricular option for her transcript. Edison, with Title IX to thank, already had six girls on the team.
She came to the first workout wearing Kobe Bryant basketball shoes, a fleece shirt and shorts over her tights, unaware that she needed workout clothes and wrestling shoes. She weighed 170 pounds.
Her first practice began with a light warmup, an easy jog around the wrestling room. Miller stopped to walk after one lap. She was breathing heavily, she explained to teammates, figuring it to be a valid excuse. That's the purpose of the exercise, they told her.
"That's how not in tune with sports I was," she says.
So not in tune that when she lost her first match, she didn't realize that she had been defeated or that she had been pinned until the referee told her to stand up and shake hands with her opponent, and even then, she still wasn't sure what had happened. She thought she was doing pretty well.
Nari Miller's trek down the school stairs leads to wrestling practice, and for the team captain, practice time comes with extra responsibilities, such as leading the warmup, overseeing the weigh-in and logging the results. When the time comes, there's wrestling. Teammate Tremayne Graham found out Miller gets quite serious about that.
Wellington has coached Edison wrestling for 15 years, with at least one girl on his team every year but one. Miller's attitude impressed him, but at 170 pounds, she usually had to wrestle fully developed boys. "Grown men," jokes one of her close friends.
"I knew it was going to be difficult for her," Wellington says.
Wrestling exposes those who cut corners in preparation. The mat offers no place to hide. Miller realized she had to work harder than everyone else because she was new to the sport — even compared to many girl wrestlers — and already at a physical deficit competing against boys.
Practices felt like they would never end. Matches went quickly, usually ending in losses.
"I don't know why I kept coming back," she says. "Nobody asks why in the moment."
One day she climbed into the back seat of her mom's car after practice and burst into tears.
What's wrong, her mom asked. Did something happen?
Practice was extra hard, she said. Really hard. But quitting was not something she would consider.
OK then, cry it out, her mom said, reaching into the back seat so they could hold hands while her daughter sobbed.
Palmer-Handy never let her child see her own anxiety at the sight of a boy lying on top of her, squeezing her head and body while physically pinning her shoulders to the mat. She'd only ask, Are you OK with this?
The answer was always yes.
"I can push myself past throwing up, past bleeding, past crying," Miller says.
She hates losing, though, especially if she believes her opponent didn't put in as much work as she did and gets by mostly on natural strength. That is the toughest part, knowing she can't outwork genetics.
I put my all into this sport, she told her mom one day.
Tell me what I can do to help, her mom said.
They decided to find a personal trainer. Miller put in overtime through team practices, workouts with her trainer, early mornings in the weight room, late nights at a gym, weight-cutting measures at home.
She lost 20 pounds. She learned more wrestling moves. She gained confidence, felt invigorated by her progress. At training sessions, she picked the toughest kid because she wanted the hardest challenge.
She started competing year-round in national events through club programs and Minnesota/USA Girls and Women's Wrestling. Chad Shilson, who served as director of that program, held Sunday morning workouts for girls in a regional training program. Miller would take two city buses to get there before she got her driver's license and car.
She had raw talent that first year and vomited a lot during workouts. She also asked a lot of questions and accepted coaching, determined to improve.
"I get goosebumps talking about it," says Shilson, now an assistant coach of the Augsburg women's wrestling team, "because this is such a huge success story."
Fully appreciating the story requires understanding the hard parts.
Senior Night, the last home match of the season, came with the thrill of competition, a match against Washburn junior Vinny Morton, and it came with another thrill, too, when Nari Miller's mom, Gina Palmer-Handy, made an unexpected arrival with a hug and a bouquet of flowers. The more mundane details of a wrestling day also were in play: a warmup run and official Leo Tomperi checking fingernails for length, boys and girls, as happens every match.
The workout starts at 6:45 a.m. in the auxiliary gym on the lower level of Edison High. Miller barely makes it on time after getting stuck behind a semi on side roads near school. She usually times the 30-minute commute from her house in Coon Rapids perfectly.
Three wrestlers make the voluntary session. As team captain, Miller never misses a workout, mandatory or voluntary.
The session starts with a series of sprints on the basketball court. By 7 a.m. Miller is drenched in sweat. She heads to the weight room for a circuit of bench presses, squats, deadlifts and pull-ups.
Every rep matters. She grits her teeth and grunts while bench-pressing 135 pounds twice to finish a set.
The workout ends at 7:40 a.m. Enough time for a cool-down stretch and quick shower before first period starts at 8:15 a.m.
Wellington, her coach, chose Miller to be captain because of her experience and the respect she commands. Everyone falls in line when she speaks.
She leads warmups before every practice, yelling out instructions to initiate drills. She logs weigh-in numbers on a chart after practice. She picks the music to play in the wrestling room. She demonstrates how to balance sports and academics by carrying a 3.6 grade-point average.
As she leads the team on a jog through the hallways at school, the group passes a bulletin board outside the cafeteria that has a poster of Miller posing in her wrestling singlet. She is flexing.
"Her drive is different," says Randry Mugisha, an Edison graduate who now wrestles for North Iowa Area Community College. "She does not back down from a fight."
Mugisha wrestles at 174 pounds in college. He works out at Edison while home on break, stepping in as Miller's training partner. He does not go easy on her.
"We're just two wrestlers going at it," he says.
Miller has friends on the Park Center High team. When she learned that Park Center coach Justin Miller had converted his garage into a wrestling room — complete with padded walls — Nari asked if she could come over to train. He said yes, and she'd found another workout spot.
If nobody was home, the coach would leave the garage unlocked for her. She always cleaned up after herself.
"She's really a go-getter," Justin Miller says. "She's out there training on her own when nobody is watching."
When she gets tired of the grind, she remembers something a trainer once told her: You don't know what tired is. You're still young. You don't know how it feels to be dead tired and your rent is due and you don't have the money.
Wrestling brings out her serious side. Those in her close circle laugh at that persona.
"The goofy Nari comes out when she is with us," friend Olivia Sackor says.
Goofy Nari greets older sister Landrei Palmer at night by jumping on top of her. Goofy Nari loves to send friends spontaneous ideas for outings, such as the time she suggested in a group chat that they all go to a rodeo.
"We were like, what?" Sackor says.
They didn't make the rodeo, but Miller is never not in the mood for sushi. Her requests to meet up can come at any time.
"We're like, dude, it's 11 at night," Sackor says.
Miller fills her rare spare time watching movies, dancing — "she busts into my room doing some crazy dance," her sister says — or roller skating.
"She skates fast," says friend Ro Adeduntan. "She laps me."
The competitive streak does not go away when goofy Nari appears.
When she's around school, and she's usually around school, Nari Miller can be found just about anywhere. Perhaps there will be a glimpse of her as she runs the hallways or stretches with teammates, or she'll turn up with friend Ali Maluki in the lunchroom. Another landing spot: the shoulder of coach Troy Wellington.
The wrestler looked at his coach and laughed before he walked onto the mat. That doesn't happen often, but Miller noticed it before one match last season. The kid then spent the entire match trying to pin her in a manner that showed he didn't take her seriously. He won but didn't get a pin.
"I'm proud of myself for not giving him that type of power over me," she says.
At a multi-team meet in January, Miller won by forfeit when an opposing coach said his school prohibits boys from wrestling girls. Wellington said that hadn't happened in a few years but was a common occurrence with religious-based schools in the early years of girls' participation.
Attitudes have changed over time. An Edison wrestler at a lower weight lost to a girl this season. He ran off the mat and told teammates that she deserved to win because she was better and more technical than he was. Nobody razzed him.
Miller prefers to wrestle girls, but that happens infrequently because only 250 girls participate in wrestling statewide, mostly in lower weight classes. She has wrestled only four girls this season, going undefeated with three pins and a technical fall.
Miller hoped to wrestle a girl in a 30-team event in Rogers in late December. Instead, she drew St. Michael-Albertville's Cole Becker, a defending state champion who was ranked No. 1 in the state.
"I didn't even know I was wrestling a girl until I got out there," Becker says.
That was his first varsity match against a girl, and even though he tried to approach it as he approaches any match, "it's still kind of in the back of your head a little bit while you're wrestling. It's just different."
He pinned Miller in the first period.
"She did better than some of the other kids I've wrestled," Becker says.
Miller has a winning record (7-5) this season, but her senior year has tested her in deeply personal ways.
Section tournament day arrived, and Sophie Rojas of Mahnomen-Waubun found out while pinned to the mat that Nari Miller was ready. Lindsey Nosbush of Mora was headed toward the mat when she found out. All that led to … FaceTime time with Mom, a group hug with Shakopee wrestler Joel Makem in front and Fridley's Olivia Sackor hidden behind, and finally: flexing in triumph.
Miller was driving down East River Road listening to the song "More & More" by the artist Joe when her phone rang. Her mom was crying on the other end, telling her to come home right away.
Miller feared the worst because those were her mom's exact words the day her grandfather died last February.
Miller walked into the house this time to find her mom crying on the floor. Kavanian Palmer, Miller's 21-year-old cousin, had been shot and killed Nov. 12 while acting as a good Samaritan after a car crash in Minneapolis.
Palmer was shot when he attempted to stop a man who was fleeing the crash. Robert D. Hall is charged with second-degree intentional murder and second-degree unintentional murder in the case.
To hear the news from her mom "was paralyzing," Miller says.
She drove to a park near her house and sat in her car and cried for hours.
Kavanian had lived with them for a year when Nari was in middle school. He treated her like a little sister, always a protector. They'd move furniture in the living room and hold their own dance parties. She adored him.
"My cousin was trying to do the right thing and he gets killed," she says. "It's not fair."
She was still grieving the loss of her grandpa John, who died of natural causes on Feb. 24, 2021. Even though he lived in Arkansas, the two were particularly close. They talked regularly on the phone.
"Best friends," she says.
Their final conversation came on Valentine's Day. He called to congratulate her on getting her driver's license and a car.
Miller had a wrestling meet the day after he died. She cried during her matches, but she went 2-0, noting that sometimes painful emotion "brings the best out of you."
Perhaps the grief that she carries contributed to her jubilance at the section championship Feb. 19 in Sartell, Minn. The scream, the flex. She sacrificed a lot to reach that moment, and she endured personal loss that gave her senior year too many moments of "crying in my car for a good amount of time," she says.
She shows her best at the section meet. Her opponent in the final, Mora's Lindsey Nosbush, chuckles when offering her impression of Miller.
"You can definitely tell she's a football player," Nosbush says.
A man Miller doesn't know stops to praise her for one of her wrestling moves, calling it the best he's ever seen. A fellow competitor rushes over to gush about her being a "beast" on the mat.
Miller appreciates the compliments. She knows how she earned them.
"Nobody sees the 6 a.m. workouts," she says. "They didn't see the extra workouts after practice."
The mood is giddy around her while awaiting the awards ceremony. Edison assistant coach Gary Poole jokes about making T-shirts for wrestlers next season that read, "Wrestle Like Nari." A friend keeps yelling for Miller to join her in a TikTok video. There are plans for a pizza party later.
Miller also has a secret that she's ready to share: She plans to wrestle in college next season at Texas Woman's University in a newly created program under the direction of Randi Miller, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist.
The kid who showed up to practice four years ago with the wrong shoes and bad cardio is going to be a college wrestler, with the hope of making an Olympic team someday.
Nothing has stopped her yet. She sees nothing to stop her now.
Handed a blue ribbon and gold medal, Nari Miller knew what to do. She became a section champion Feb. 19 in Sartell, Minn., and on Saturday she will try to become a state champion in the first girls' wrestling state tournament in Minnesota history.