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Youthful Joy, in Souped-Up Chairs

TUNED IN

August 20, 2002|JOSH FRIEDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's nothing ordinary about the Millers--except, perhaps, the life they lead.

When Fritz and Cindy Miller of Soldotna, Alaska, learned in 1989 that their infant twins, Mariya and Michelle, had spinal muscular atrophy, they wondered if the family could enjoy a normal life together. But they didn't waste time worrying about it.

The family rebuilt their home from the ground up, accommodating the quadriplegic girls' special needs with a veritable funhouse of wide ramps and open spaces. Because no commercial motorized wheelchairs offered the kind of mobility these parents demanded for their kids, the Millers and family friend Jim Van Sickle, a retired engineer, designed and built turbocharged versions of their own in the garage.

That's the kind of tenacious spirit that sparks "Normal for Us: The Miller Twins," a one-hour documentary at 9 tonight on KCET.

If the girls have been sapped of much of their strength by a form of muscular dystrophy, their souped-up chairs help give them the power to lead as normal a life as possible.

These gizmos, which the Millers rebuild and upgrade every couple of years, handle more rocky terrain than most SUVs, allowing the twins to zip around like other kids--with the skinned knees and tattered shoes to prove it. A spinning function provides endless hours of dizzy fun. A catapult lever allows the girls to fling basketballs from half court, apparently with more accuracy than many highly paid NBA veterans.

For Mariya and Michelle, who go to a regular public school, getting teased is not the problem. What they have to watch out for, they say, is so-called friends who only like them for their chairs.

It's a price worth paying. As any kid knows, the only thing better than being normal is being cool.

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