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Jul. 21—The trio stood around a table eating lunch — takeout Mexican — and talking, perhaps about their upcoming trip.
Others went about their business nearby, concentrating on their own tasks.
Through the open doors toward the back, the sound of 18-wheelers rumbling by could be heard and the bordering cornfields seen.
Nothing extraordinary for a sultry, summer Friday afternoon along Route 222 in northern Berks County.
The only hint of something special was the sign along the highway in Maidencreek Township, probably overlooked by most motorists, that said: "Congrats to our Olympians! We have 5 in Tokyo."
Garage Strength, the gym Schuylkill Valley High School graduate Dane Miller started in his parents' garage in 2008, has been known in this area as a place where high school athletes — at first it was just throwers — have gone to improve.
It's become much more than that, and not just because the facility has long since outgrown the Millers' garage. Just ask Olympians Sam Mattis, Alex Rose and CiCi Onyekwere, all discus throwers who wrapped up a training session with that lunch, and prepared for flights to Tokyo just days away.
"It's funny," said Mattis, who will represent the USA. "I mean, yeah, it's crazy. It kind of defies all logic that you've got multiple Olympians and multiple, like, world team members and Pan-Am team members coming out of this gym in Fleetwood that started in a garage. Even when we're here, it's not like it's all world-class athletes. There's high-schoolers working out in the back. It's a good place to go if you want to get good."
"It's pretty incredible the things that happen inside of this gym," said Rose, who will compete for Samoa. "We have throwers from all over the country and all over the world here prepping for the Olympic Games in this tiny gym in Pa. It's pretty, pretty cool."
Lot of work; lot of fun
When Miller opened Garage Strength almost 13 years ago, this is what he had in mind.
In addition to Mattis, Rose and Onyekwere of Nigeria, two shot putters who train under Miller, Canada's Tim Nedow and South Africa's Jason Van Rooyen, will compete in Tokyo.
"I think a lot of people ask me, like, 'Did you ever think that you could do this?' " Miller said. "I think for me, I always thought I could do it. I just didn't know how or what we were going to do or the path."
The trip down that path has gone quickly for the 37-year-old. He credits the athletes for taking a chance on him. He's been coaching Rose, he said, for six or seven years.
"Just that relationship has sort of led to what we have here," Miller said. "And maybe it was expedited. Maybe it wasn't. I don't know. I don't know the path that I would have taken otherwise.
"It is what I've always wanted to do. I've always wanted to try to become the best throws coach, the best weightlifting coach, the best sports performance coach in the world. Whatever that means, I don't know, but it's like providing the best service that I possibly can to these guys, and in turn, having a good time doing it."
'Come to fruition'
Every Olympian has his or her own story, of triumph, of disappointment, of sacrifice, of hard work.
Of smiles. Of tears. Of sweat.
Mattis could have decided to avoid that. He went to the University of Pennsylvania, earned a degree from the Wharton School and was offered a job on Wall Street by JPMorgan Chase after interning there.
"I thought I'd get a job and figure out what I want to actually do with my life afterwards," said Mattis, 27, who won the 2015 NCAA discus title. "And then I was fortunate enough to get good enough at discus that I could make that a professional career. So it really wasn't a hard choice for me whether to sell my soul and make money, or actually enjoy myself and maybe do something a little more fulfilling and something that I've enjoyed.
"This is definitely a very unique kind of life path, and I'm pretty happy that I chose it despite the struggles."
Mattis, who grew up near New Brunswick, N.J., has been living in Berks for most of the last five years to train daily at Garage Strength. He's one of a group of athletes who decided to move to be near the gym. He's far from living in luxury.
"Dane's kind of made this area feel a lot more like home than I think it could have," Mattis said, who smiles easily and often. "He's been super supportive of everybody who's moved up."
Mattis finished third at last month's Olympic Trials with a throw of 62.51 meters to earn his spot on the team.
"It's awesome," he said. "I don't think, you know, that the label Olympian has really set in yet. It's starting to, but I think until I'm on a plane and until I'm in Japan, I don't know if it totally will. But that's something I've been working towards for like over a decade, whether I knew it or not at the time. So it's really cool to have that goal come to fruition."
Mattis goes into Tokyo ranked 17th in the world by worldathletics.com.
"I just would like to throw as far as I think I can," he said. "It's probably not going to be a medal-contending throw. But who knows? You never know what could happen that day."
Onyekwere has been using Miller's office to conduct Zoom meetings for her full-time job as a product development engineer at Ford, impressing her coach along the way.
The 27-year-old graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in mechanical engineering. She said she works with exterior lighting, previously on the Ford Explorer and the Lincoln Aviator and now on future products for the trucks.
"She's a killer," Miller said. "You should hear her on her meetings. She just totally dominates."
That balance of work and track is something that Onyekwere, whose given name is Chioma, has done since college. To her, it doesn't seem unusual to run a Zoom meeting and 20 minutes later be training for the Olympics.
"It's just really more about sacrifices." she said. "I had to sacrifice a couple of social events. I had a friend's wedding that I was a bride's maid for that I couldn't attend because I was at national trials. But I think it's kind of worthwhile to achieve your overall dream. For me, I'm more than happy to call myself an Olympian."
Onyekwere was born in Lansing, Mich., in 1994 as one of triplets, then moved to Nigeria before coming back to the U.S. in 2002.
She met Miller in 2018 and he became her full-time coach in 2019. Because of her job, she lives in Michigan and mostly trains remotely.
"Shortly after I'm done with work, I'll set up my camera, take some throws, take some videos of my throws, send him the videos and he'll send back a quick critique on what to work on or what to look for," said Onyekwere, who visits Garage Strength about quarterly. "I'll take that feedback and apply it to my next practice and try to get a little bit better and get a little bit more direction from that."
Onyekwere won the discus title at the Nigerian Olympic Trials with a throw of 62.20 meters. Her personal best is 63.30 meters, and she said she'd like to hit the African record of 64 meters. She's ranked 16th in the world.
"I want to get up on that podium," she said of her goals for Tokyo. "I want to bring back a medal. I want to (personal best), for sure. I definitely think I'm more than capable of doing it, and I think I'm ready to throw something big that might shock a lot of people who may underestimate what I can bring to the table."
Rose became Miller's first Olympian when he qualified for the Games in 2016. Though born in Michigan, he has dual citizenship because his father was born in Samoa.
Rose didn't make the final in Rio and finished 29th overall.
That could have been the end of his Olympic career as he considered moving on with the rest of his life in 2018.
"I started working a full-time sales job, where I was driving 1,000 miles a week," said the 29-year old Central Michigan grad. "I was doing anything and everything to try to provide for my family. You know, I'd spent the past eight years of my life focusing on discus. So I was ready to take a step forward. I did not expect to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2019."
He reconsidered. He took a sabbatical from his job in December 2019. He got a tattoo of the Olympic rings on his right arm. Things got further complicated when the Games were delayed a year due to COVID-19.
"The support of my wife (Samantha) and my family has been paramount to my success," he said. "So I'm just so thankful for the support during this crazy experience for the last few years."
He makes it to Garage Strength, he said, about three times a year, staying for a week or two. The rest of the time, he trains remotely from his home in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Rose, who was selected over the weekend as Samoa's flag bearer for Friday's opening ceremony, is ranked 12th in the world. He has the seventh-longest throw in the world this season at 67.48 meters.
"My primary goal is to make the Olympic final," he said. "There has never been a Samoan athlete to qualify for the Olympic final in athletics (track). My secondary goal is to come home with an Olympic medal. I think it's possible. And I think that if I have a good day I can compete out there, and I'm excited to see what happens."
'In this together'
There's actually a sixth Garage Strength representative heading to Tokyo: Miller.
He will be part of the Samoan contingent as Rose's coach when the men's discus starts on July 29. Rose said he wanted his coach there, and the Samoan officials agreed.
The two got on a plane Wednesday in Newark, N.J., for the 14-hour flight.
Miller also will be able to coach his four other athletes. Women's discus starts July 30 and the men's shot put Aug. 3.
"I think that him going to bat for me, too, it's like we've got a really, really good relationship." Miller said of Rose and alluding to his other athletes.
"They know what I go through, how much effort I put into it," he said. "And I think that's what makes it even more special is that they appreciate that.
"It's not just like, 'Oh, this is my coach.' It's like they know I'm out here killing myself. And they see it and they want to see the success. I think they want to see it just as much for me as they want to see it for them. And vice versa. I think that's what makes it so special. We're all in this together."
Miller couldn't help but reflect on everything that has happened, all the things his wife, Caitlin Browne, has had to deal with, all the trials and tribulations.
But he's got five Olympians. He said he would've been happy with two or three. And he's going to Tokyo.
"I think it's, it's, as a coach, this was like, yeah, this is a dream," Miller said, struggling to find the right words before getting teary eyed, then stopping to compose himself.
"And I think. ... It's just cool," he said. "I mean, my whole family, we make sacrifices. My wife's supportive, my family, my kids. I'm away all the time. But this is, this is what I want, you know. So it's pretty neat."