ASHEVILLE — Last Friday, the Asheville High football team played its first 4A playoff game in decades and its first home playoff game since 2014.
Landon Miller contributed on both sides of the ball, as he has for most of his senior season with the Cougars, helping the team advance to this week's second round against Mallard Creek.
But the highlight of his weekend — the athletic event he'd really been looking forward to — wasn't until Saturday morning in Polk County.
One of the best paddlers in the country, Miller's focus is on whitewater canoeing whenever his football pads are off. Last weekend was his third time running the notorious Green Rivers Narrows Race and winning his category, and in the near future, he hopes to qualify for his second world championships.
"I love whitewater. Anything I can do, if I can go to the river on a certain day, I'll go immediately," Miller said. "If I don't have football practice, I'm going kayaking immediately."
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The son of 2000 freestyle canoe world champion Brian Miller, Landon didn't pick up the sport until about five years ago, initially hesitant to plunge into the daunting rapids and instead focusing on BMX racing and basketball.
But once he took to the water, it clicked quickly, and soon he was competing at national junior events in a variety of one-man canoe (C1) events.
"From a young age, my dad taught me everything and led me into everything," Miller said. "He gave me all the potential to see everything from a different perspective, from his into mine as a newbie. Now, I can see his, and I get to teach people."
As a 15-year-old, Miller qualified for Team USA and competed at the 2019 ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships in Sort, Spain, where his sixth-place finish in the semifinals put him one spot away from reaching the finals. He hasn't had a chance to improve on that performance in the years since, with the 2020 and 2021 world championships canceled due to the pandemic.
"I wasn't expecting [to qualify], but out of the blue, I came out and made it," Miller said. "It was a great experience."
Freestyle canoe consists of remaining in one place in the water and performing various flips, spins and other tricks for a score, but Miller also races down rapids and waterfalls.
At Saturday's Green River Narrows Race, which draws competitors from across the nation as one of the most prestigious and extreme kayak races in the country, Miller was the fastest C1 junior for the third consecutive year. (Another local teen, Asheville School junior Sam Sharp, had the second-fastest time among K1 juniors.)
"I live so close to Green River, I can always go there," Miller said. "I know the river like the back of my hand."
But given his football responsibilities, Miller wasn't able to put in as many hours on the river as he'd like to prior to the race, leading to a less competitive mindset to Saturday's race than he had in previous years.
First joining the Asheville program as a sophomore wide receiver without football experience, Miller became a starting linebacker for the Cougars as a junior in the spring. And when Miller continued adding muscle over the summer, coach Cort Radford envisioned another new position for him in his senior season.
"He played last year, a year before I thought he was ready, due to some injuries," Radford said. "Playing outside linebacker got him in the physical state to play the tight-end/fullback he plays now."
Asheville had an opening at H-back, a position that can line up at a number of locations depending on the play and formation, requiring a "jack of all trades" capable of a variety of blocking and route-running.
His natural athleticism and newfound bulk meant the physical requirements were no problem, but he suddenly had to learn the playbook from a whole new perspective and begin to mesh with the rest of the offensive line.
"It's a lot of memorization and a lot of focus to know the playcalls," Miller said. "It's a whole different part of football."
He proved to be a quick learner, though, just as he did in the water.
Miller said his teammates don't have much of an idea of his weekend activities, or the risks they pose.
"They joke around about it, but they don't know the extent of how hard kayaking is," Miller said, "and the potential that there is with the danger aspect of it."
Radford, though, only needed one look at a video of Miller going down a river to learn his lesson.
"We just kind of know he does it," Radford said. "I watched one of his kayaking videos and I won't watch another one. It scares me to death."
Even if his football coach isn't among them, however, Miller's trajectory and track record indicates there will be plenty of people watching him on the water for the foreseeable future.
"I really enjoy the adrenaline rush and just the thrill of dropping waterfalls," Miller said. "You don't know what's going to happen. You don't know the line that you're going to have until you go and do it. There's so many opportunities and potential."
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Asheville football's Landon Miller also a standout whitewater canoeist