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A pro cyclist turned coach draws on his Furman education

Rusty Miller ’98 stands behind the cyclists he coaches after the National Championships in June.

Last updated August 8, 2023

By Rachel Williams

For Rusty Miller ’98, coaching is just as much about character and integrity as it is about technique and skill in the sport.

Miller, a former professional cyclist, is the director of EF Education-ONTO, based in Greenville, South Carolina. The organization identifies, develops and provides racing opportunities to cyclists, ages 15-18. Miller and the team just returned home from five weeks in Europe where they raced in Ireland, Belgium and France – and won all of the last seven days that they competed.

“This is the most special concentration of young talent I’ve ever worked with,” said Miller. “I think within two years, our little program can be the strongest junior cycling team in the world.”

Miller has been the director of ONTO for a decade. ONTO is short for “ontogeny” and means the development of an organism over its lifespan. Just last year, the EF Education professional team approached ONTO to form a partnership that helps build a pipeline of talent to compete at the highest level, including the Tour de France.

In the 10 years that Miller has been at the helm, five junior cyclists have gone on to compete professionally. Others have continued their education, including a couple at Furman, and started careers. Miller doesn’t measure success by the number of amateurs-turned-professionals, but instead by the character and integrity he helps foster in these young athletes.

“One of the great honors of my life is that I have the chance to teach young people from the point of view of a coach,” he said. “I can instill discipline and work ethic, of course, but we go deeper into character development. What is it to represent something that’s greater than yourself?  What is it to foster trust and allow vulnerability within a group of champions?”

Something that Miller teaches his athletes is to have control over their competitive fire.

“During a race, I want you to dominate like a gladiator. But it’s just as important to give your competitors a fist bump before the race. It’s even more important afterward to be able to say to them, ‘I’m glad we came here together today to suffer and to race,’” he said. “Developmentally, I coach the human being before I coach the athlete. That’s the only right order.”

Miller credits his liberal arts and sciences education at Furman for his mindset as a coach. With a degree in psychology and some courses in philosophy, he questions the “why” behind everything.

“Liberal arts forced me to think about bigger questions,” he said. “Who am I? Why am I here? What is our choice in this world and what will I do with my time here?”

A Greenville native, Miller competed for Furman’s intercollegiate cycling team his senior year, when the national championship was held in Greenville. He remembers friends lining the streets of the course that day to cheer him on. After graduation, Miller competed professionally for three years.

Miller has also coached Duke University and Furman’s cycling teams, delivering national titles each year from 2012 to 2015.

Miller at center in 2014 when he was coaching Furman’s cycling team

He and his wife, Meghan Slining, an associate professor of health sciences at Furman, tag-team certain aspects of developing ONTO cyclists. Slining has worked with Miller’s teams in guided meditation practices and teaching them mindfulness for sports performance.

Miller and his wife, Furman Associate Professor of Health Sciences Meghan Slining, at the Junior Tour of Ireland, where she was helping the team

Next, ONTO cyclists will finish out the 2023 season around Labor Day at the Tour de DMZ in Korea. They will then gear up for a busy 2024 season racing across the United States and Europe.

About once a week, Miller saddles up on his bike, too, to keep enjoying the ride.

“I suffer a bit too, just to remind myself,” he said.

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