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CHAMPAIGN — On Aug. 30, 1998, Dennis Millage got the telephone call no father ever wants to get.

His 21-year-old daughter, Nichole, had lost part of her left leg in a boating accident at Clinton Lake.

"It was one of the saddest days of my life," said Dennis Millage, who now lives in Bourbonnais.

Flash forward to Saturday night, as Dennis sat before his computer, livestreaming the Paralympics sitting-volleyball finals from Rio.

Nichole was playing outside hitter for Team USA as the Americans beat their longtime rival, China, 25-12, 25-12, 25-18.

Dennis couldn't be prouder as he watched Nichole receive a gold medal to go along with the silver medals she won in 2008 at Beijing (where she painted her fingernails red, white and blue) and in 2012 in London.

"It was one of the happiest days of my life," he said.

Back in 1998, Nichole Millage was in a boat at the lake with some friends when her life changed forever.

"They were sitting in a cove when a friend was trying to be funny and knocked two people off the front of the boat," Dennis Millage said.

Nichole's left leg was caught in a propeller and nearly severed. A young man at the front of the boat with her wasn't as fortunate as the Champaign woman. He died.

Paramedics treated Nichole at the scene. She was airlifted first to Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana and later to Springfield.

By the time Dennis Millage saw his daughter, her left leg had been amputated just below the knee.

"It was pretty tragic. I was heartbroken, but I was also very happy she was alive," her dad said.

Nichole, who had been a top volleyball and softball player for the Centennial Chargers, made the most of her situation.

In 2004, while Nichole was working as a counselor at a children's camp for amputees, the Champaign woman was introduced to sitting volleyball.

The next year she attended a camp for sitting volleyball, and she discovered she had a talent for it.

"She went out to Oklahoma and tried out for the U.S. Paralympics team," Dennis Millage said. "They train at Central Oklahoma University in Edmond, Oklahoma."

After making the team, Nichole moved to Oklahoma to train with her new teammates.

"She lived out there for seven or eight years," Dennis Millage said. "She got to go to school and got her Master's degree at the university."

Later Nichole moved back to Champaign and got a job with the city of Champaign as an environmental sustainability specialist for the public works department.

But Dennis Millage said his daughter continued to commute between Champaign and Oklahoma for her Paralympics training.

Millage admitted he was a bit nervous while watching Nichole and her teammates battle China on Saturday night.

"While I was nervous, I was also very confident because I have always believed in her," he said.

Dennis said he looks forward to being reunited with Nichole when the gold medalist returns to Illinois.

"She has had a great attitude from day one. By being part of Team USA, Nichole has been very fortunate to see the world," he said. "She now has a great job in Champaign, and I know she will be an inspiration for young people everywhere."

Current or former University of Illinois, Centennial or Parkland athletes accounted for 22 medals at the Rio Games, including 17 in track and field, one on a sitting volleyball team with two local athletes, one on a wheelchair women's basketball team with three UI athletes, one on a wheelchair men's basketball team with two UI athletes and two in tennis.

If the entries from Champaign County were their own country, it would have finished 18th in the medal count.

The final local medals of the Rio Paralympics were awarded Sunday, with Gyu Dae Kim winning the bronze medal in the men's wheelchair marathon and Tatyana McFadden and Amanda McGrory winning the silver and bronze, respectively, in the women's wheelchair marathon.

Champaign Mayor Deb Frank Feinen said she is proud of Nichole Millage's accomplishments both on and off the volleyball court.

"I think she is an inspiration for everyone, particularly kids with disabilities," Feinen said Sunday. "She proves that hard work doesn't go to waste. You can be successful with hard work. She is awesome."

Reporter

Tim Mitchell is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is tmitchel@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@mitchell6).

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