Covered in my own sweat, I crumpled to the ground. The piercing flashes of hundreds of cameras sparkled all around me and thousands of people looked on and cheered as I fell, exhausted, onto the floor of Redbird Arena. So this is what it feels like, I thought.
As the story goes, the game of volleyball was started by a YMCA director, William G. Morgan, in 1895. Created as a mix between tennis and handball, the game originally had one net and any number of players, with no restrictions on the amount of times one team could contact the ball before successfully sending it over the net. By 1896, the game was being called "volley ball", because of the volleying nature of the sport, and rules were quickly solidified and spread across the country through YMCAs. Volleyball started catching on, making sense of long-limbed women and men. It eventually made sense of me.
I started playing volleyball when I was twelve years old, in seventh grade, and resembled a bird. At 5'8" and 120 pounds, my thighs were barely wider than my knees and my head was a little too big for my shoulders. Although I learned the technical skills quickly, I was too waifish to amount to much on the court. But something about the sport got in my blood, got under my skin. I loved it. I had played basketball before, but I never loved that sport. I only played because all of the other girls in my grade did. Once volleyball found me, though, I played because I could, because there was nothing else I wanted to do.
By the time I got through high school I was good. Really good. I don't say that because I thought that I was; I say that because I was, because it mattered to me and fifteen other girls and a whole town that I was good, that our team was good. It was important, you see, because it was our life. I will come back to that. First, you must realize that I was not always very good. I learned how to be good at this game, learned to fight for something that was important to me, learned that fighting for something can change everything.
You cannot create something out of nothing. That is why creating new muscle is a process of tearing down old muscle. Lifting weights creates resistance on the muscle, which in turn causes tiny fibers in the muscle to tear. Afterward, during a time of rest, the body repairs the torn tissue with new muscle fiber, increasing both the size and strength of the tissue. Muscles grow in this way, through a process of breaking down and building up. You cannot force this process. It must happen in its own time.
When I made the varsity team as a freshman in high school, I was simply present on the court, and I loved even that. But I was never the go-to girl, never got the big plays, and it wasn't enough for me. I felt, in my body, that there was more to me than I had figured out. Even with my skinny bones and weak muscles, I would have sparks of excellence in practice, even flashes of strength from time to time. But I could not sustain the rhythm and the grace that I needed to be good. I was tired of feeling tangled in my body, and I wanted to make sense of the limbs that I had been given. This dissatisfaction, partnered with the hope of finally and really being good at something, spurred me. So when my team made it to the semi-finals of the state tournament and ended up with a fourth-place finish, I decided that I wanted to make the big plays. I wanted more—wanted the skills, wanted the chance, wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of doing something well. And the team. I wanted to be a part of something that was bigger than me. We could win the championship the next year, but our team needed one more strong player. I was determined to be that girl.
So, starting one month after our season ended in November, I began to meet with the trainer at the college just two minutes from my house. Three days a week, Coach Mitch led me through a lifting program, jumping workouts, and speed and agility training. On my "off" days, I pushed my tired body on the treadmill and on the track, determined to be the player that my team needed in order to win. At fifteen, I found both my solace and my hell in the weight room.
One day of training stands out in my memory. Mitch always knew where my physical limit was, and took me near the boundary line often. This Tuesday, however, he pushed me to the edge. After I finished a set of lunges near the end of my workout, my body started to go into major fatigue. With shaky legs and a racing heart, I geared all of the energy that I had left toward one final lift.
"Come on, Ann! Come on!" I can still hear Mitch's emphatic voice. "Give me all you've got! No excuses! You can't give in to your body. Your body will tell you no when you can go further. Do this!"
I was doing a bench press now, half way through the set of six presses. Three left. Pain. Burning. Two left. Fight through. The inner ache of the deeper burn. Muscles being torn, stretched. This is good, I yell inwardly. Pain is good! Pain means strength! Pain is what I want, what I am here for! Pain means success! One more!
"Come ON, Ann! Fight it! Fight for it! This is it, girl! Give me all you've got, right here, right now! Push!"
My arms were visibly shaking now, the bar wobbling in response. With my elbows at a ninety-degree angle, Mitch reached out to place his hand under the bar and steady it for me. I knew if he did that he would inevitably release me from some of the bar's weight by carrying it for me.
"NO!" I yelled. My words escaped in short gasps, my whole body battling for just fifteen more degrees of strength. "Let—me—do it—MYSELF!" With all I had, I exhaled and pushed what felt like the weight of a car away from my chest.
"YES, Ann! YES! Way to go, champ!"
Mitch took the bar from me and my arms fell limply at my side. I closed my eyes as I felt tears rolling down my face.
My young body was, as athletes say, "racked". But I loved it. I loved all of it. The tangible reality of this work inspired me, and the increasing strength that grew in the sinews of my arms and legs pushed me on and gave me hope. In the nine months between those two volleyball seasons of my life, I gained twenty pounds on my young and lengthy frame. Fifteen of those pounds were muscle.
There are six positions on a volleyball court, and no more than six players are allowed on the court for one team at a time. Those playing in the back row—the back three—are primarily defensive players, deflecting hits that the other team sends at them. The front three are offensive players, the ones who work the visible magic and keep the game fresh. The names of these positions are less glorious than the movement of their bodies, but every team needs an outside hitter, a middle hitter, and a setter. Setters are the quarterbacks of volleyball, quick and agile, intelligent and vocal. Outside hitters are big, dynamic, and flashy—the staple of the game. Middle hitters are chameleons. They must learn to become deceptive players, tall but quick. Theirs is a game of precision, of seconds and inches. Everything comes fast in the middle, and everything that happens there matters.
During this off-season of weight training, I spent an extra two hours a week working on my hitting form and timing with a personal coach. Rachel, the setter for my team, even came to set for me, and as good as she was, I was getting nowhere. I was getting stronger, yes, but I did not seem to be getting better. Disheartened but not yet defeated, I continued to work on hitting from the outside position. Looking to my sophomore season, I never thought that I could break into any other positions on the team.
One day, my hitting coach, Andrea, asked me to switch things up.
"Hey Ann, hit some quick balls from the middle position for me, will you?"
I yielded—at this point, I had nothing to lose. "Sure, Andrea. What do you want me to try?"
Andrea shifted the weight of her 6'4" frame from her right foot to her left. She had been an All-American player at a Division 1 school, and I trusted her. "Hit a basic quick set out of the middle position for me. Go in hard and fast. Don't worry about your footwork, just smack the ball."
I nodded, unsure but willing. As I sped in to hit the first ball she tossed, it all clicked. Instantaneously, everything in my body understood the language of a middle hitter—the speed, the quickness, the pop of the arm and the snap of the head—it all made sense to me. As Andrea tossed more balls, Rachel set them up. I pounded them down. I became a completely different player, and my dad, who came every week to help round up stray balls, stopped and watched me, his mouth open. I had found my sweet spot.
Our team found its sweet spot that year, too. My sophomore season, it felt like a shot had gone off, or a trumpet. We were out of the gate and doing it, winning. We were really winning, too, not just barely or mostly. We were wrecking teams, ruining streaks, breaking records. And it mattered to us. It mattered because winning really does matter, and it does change things. Losers will try to tell you otherwise. They will say that losers are still winners in their hearts, or they will say that character is formed more in defeat than in victory. I have been on both sides of the coin, and I know that only one side speaks the whole truth.
After three months of victories, we won the quarterfinal and semifinal matches of the state tournament on Friday night and Saturday morning, which put us in the Illinois state championship match Saturday night. Waiting with my teammates before we were allowed on the court, I fingered my jersey—a nervous habit—feeling the thinness of the black cloth and the way the threads criss-crossed against my fingertips. I started jumping in place, partially from nervous energy and partially to keep from freezing in the cold hallway of Redbird Arena. I looked behind me and saw the rest of my teammates bouncing up and down as well. We were all jumping in place, trying to keep our muscles warm.
Rachel was bouncing next to me. She stopped for a second and grabbed my shoulders.
"I don't want to be sitting in the bleachers crying in a couple of hours. We're here, girl. We can do this. I'm gonna give you a lot of shots, tonight. Put 'em away."
"I've got your back, Rach. Trust me."
We turned our heads toward the court as the warm-up music began. After a quick high-five, we took our places in line to run out.
"This is what we came for, Ann."
"Let's do it, Baby!"
I remember that moment because it was the first time in my life I had felt like I was on the edge of something huge. I felt the weight of responsibility that success brings—all of our other wins sat behind this game, and our season would be mostly forgotten if we lost. I also felt the responsibility that comes with being on a team and the fact that individual actions affect other people. As one of the top players on the team, I knew that my actions were doubly weighty on that night. Since that night, I have graduated from college and have gotten married—but this feeling was not there. In those experiences, I was on the edge of something huge, to be sure. But my preparation for these things made me sure of the outcome, positive that what had come before accepting the diploma and speaking the vows would make sense of what happened afterward. Waiting in the hallway in Redbird Arena, I could not be sure that all of my preparation would help at all. One bad night, or the loss of focus, and the winds could change. I doubt I could have verbalized it at the age of fifteen, but I was feeling the reality of responsibility for the first time—responsibility that did not have an assured outcome. We had been riding a wave for several months, and I desperately wanted it to last for just a few more hours.
My teammates and I exited the hallway and ran out onto the glossy game floor, finding ourselves in the middle of over 5,000 fans. Smothered in rich color, the red of the bleacher seats had nearly disappeared, usurped by green and gold on our side and blue and yellow on the opposition's side. Hundreds of banners and signs filled the stadium with words of encouragement and pictures of school mascots. TV cords edged the court, and two CNN Sports cameramen with bulky equipment on their shoulders walked around authoritatively, scouring the floor to find the best angle for their shots. Taking my surroundings in at a glance, I refocused my eyes on the court. I had come to play, not to watch. There would be time for pictures of this scene later, and I wanted them to be happy ones.
The championship match was a nail-biter. Our opponent was good, and while we won the first game, they won the second. In a best of three match, the third game would determine an entire season.
We entered the third and final game of the match, and it was touch-and-go the whole way. Each game went to fifteen points, and with a breakaway lead, my team was up thirteen to nine. I stepped back to the line to serve. My serve spun in, and a rally later we were up fourteen to nine. The tension in the air was thick; the crowd was loud and anxious. Standing on tip-toe, everyone held their previously waving banners awkwardly still, watching.
As a team of six on the court, we huddled for a small second. Rachel looked me straight in the eye. "Finish this, Ann. This is what we came for."
We finished it.
I jogged back behind the line and motioned to the ball girl next to the media bench. She wiped the ball down and tossed it to me. The referee blew her whistle, my signal to start the rally. Looking at the sixty feet of court in front of me, I refused to let myself think about the gravity of the moment and served my last ball of the season. They hit the ball. We returned it. We hit the ball. They returned it. They hit the ball—a teammate passed it perfectly to Rachel, and Rachel set a magnificent ball to Natalie—our future Olympian—on the outside. As she jumped up to hit, I felt the entire stadium of over 5,000 people collectively hold its breath. Natalie swung—hard—and the ball hit the floor without even a touch from the other team. I hit the floor too, crumpling under the weight of my excitement and emotion and exhaustion. So this is what it feels like to win, I thought. Amazing.
I don't want you to think that I am talking of some high school glory-days reverie, here. This mattered to our team, yes, but it mattered to our families and our town and, ultimately, it mattered to the entire volleyball community around the world. Here is why it mattered.
It mattered on a tangible level for many of us, on the level of what we would do with our lives. We were ranked eleventh in the nation, and colleges took notice. My teammate, Natalie, got a full-ride to Stanford, played in the Olympics in 2004, and then played professionally in Europe. She got her attention from being on this team. Another teammate got a full-ride scholarship to a college she could not have afforded otherwise, and my setter broke records in the state and later at the college that recruited her. I was recruited to play at multiple D-I schools. These things matter when you are fifteen, sixteen years old. They influence the rest of your life.
This season mattered even more, though, because winning does change things, and it changes entire communities when it catches on. My hometown in Illinois is a town of over 100,000 people, and in the history of the town there had never been a women's sports team who had won a championship. Men's teams had won multiple times, but women had never taken center stage, had never gotten an entire town excited about something. I grew up going to men's college basketball games and high school football games. Little girls who lived in my town when I played volleyball grew up watching volleyball games—our volleyball games. I signed autographs after games for these little girls. Megan, a seven-year-old at the time, asked if she could wear my number when she made it to high school. She wanted to play "vowwey ball". I assured her that number fourteen could be all hers, as far as I was concerned. Things like that matter to little girls, and it changes things for them. It changed things for me.
As my team continued to win, the town, divided by multiple schools and races and socio-economic classes, came together for us. Our team was full of poor girls and rich girls, black girls and white girls, and we were all best friends. The town took notice, and they came out and supported us. On the day that we played in the state tournament, our school closed early. Men and women from different sides of town took vacation days. Everyone wore green and gold, and for a day, those were the only colors that mattered.
Winning matters because it shifts something inside of you. For me, it satisfied the question that most of us ask at some point, if we do not ask it a hundred times a day: "Am I good enough?" And the answer, at least on the volleyball court, was yes. After we won the state championship again my junior year, I received more scouting letters from Division One schools. I was better than I had ever been, but I had tasted victory and knew that the change, in my life, had been accomplished already. So I chose to go to a private, Division Three school where my personality fit better than it would have at the colleges that offered me free rides. I played on the team at that school for a couple of years, and then I tried other things, other challenges off the court. I tucked my volleyball gear away and instead, I spent time abroad, I volunteered with non-profits, and I got accepted into graduate school.
People ask me why I chose that route, and it's hard to explain, except that when it comes to the heart of it, winning it is not about the medal, not at all about the fading glory. It is about knowing that there are things that can be done that change more than just a score or a record. The confidence that I gained as a fifteen-year-old girl, things like learning to work for what you want, not to fold under pressure, not to blame other people for my mistakes—these are important, too. But mostly I think it is about a moment, about creating something that cannot be taken away, about knowing that there is something you can do well, extremely well. When that has happened, when the change has already taken place, the moment stays with you and does not need to be chased anymore. It shapes the way you look at life, the way life looks back at you. For me, it changed everything.