IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Worked My Entire Life To Play Division I College Volleyball And Then Quit When I Got There
Ever since I can remember, my father told us, “You have to be the type of person that sticks with things. There will be a lot that you won’t feel like doing in life. Any successful person has the discipline to keep their head down. We are not a family of quitters.”
I figured out early on that doing well in athletics was the best way to relate to my loud, sports-centric family. As the youngest (and only girl) of older brothers, I was dragged to gym after gym, watching them practice and play games all throughout Southern California.
When I was around 4 years old, I graduated from spectating sister to super baby athlete. I started soccer, water skiing, snow skiing, ballet, jazz, and later, boys little league and tennis. I did it all. Dance was the only one that didn’t work out for me. My body didn’t look like the other little delicate ballerinas –- I had fully defined quads at 3 years old and when we did “leaps.” I was practically bouncing over the little girls.
Also, my temperament didn’t quite align with the quiet restraint intrinsic to a ballerina. By 9, as my brothers never let me forget, I was going around telling everyone that I wanted to be the first female running back in the NFL (real cute, Blair).
Sports were just something that came naturally to me. I could run, throw, jump, and hit differently than the other little kids my age. And thanks to the man-to-man combat training of a house full of brothers and neighborhood boys, I was much more aggressive, too. I made this connection during my first season of AYSO soccer on the Sassy Stingers when I scored 12 out of the team’s 15 goals. This was the moment I first discovered the thrill of winning. I loved that my whole family would come to the games and that my brothers would actually pay attention to me after, excited about my success. The field became a stage. And one that I truly enjoyed. Who doesn’t love things they’re good at?
Around 10 years old, my mom told me that I needed to pick a sport and really devote myself to it. The poor lady was shuttling three kids all over Southern California, there just wasn’t enough time to do everything. Some might find the idea of a kid picking one sport for the rest of their life at 10 to be outrageous, but this is par for the course in the notoriously competitive youth sports culture of Orange County.
I started club volleyball during the summer before fifth grade and began a rigorous schedule that I would keep through my senior year of high school. My fifth grade team practiced 3-4 times a week with travel tournaments on most weekends. In addition to team practices, I did private lessons with my coaches and worked out with the famed Marv Marinovich a few times a week too (he is a wonderful man by the way and so is his son, Todd).
Most parents probably wouldn’t think to have their 10-year-old girl do outside plyometrics and conditioning, but my brothers and all of their basketball teammates were already there so it was really just a “May as well have everyone in one place and drop the last one off while we’re here” type of thing.
While training with Marv, I got to meet and work out with mind-blowingly talented people like Troy Palomalu, Jason Sehorn, and Tyson Chandler, among others. It was a small workout facility so everyone interacted quite a bit, and they were all very kind to me. I loved getting to be around my brothers and all of these pro athletes. It was motivating and I worked hard every day that I was there.
When high school rolled around, I made varsity as a freshman. This was a big deal at my large, private Catholic, sports powerhouse school because a bunch of seniors were ruthlessly cut that year.
During my high school career, we went to the California section (CIF) finals 3 out of my 4 years and won the championship twice out of 3 times. We also went to the state finals my junior year. I was named MVP of these championships a few times and also trained at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs for junior national team stuff. I wanted to make the national team after college and eventually play professionally overseas. Blah, blah, you get the idea.
By junior year, all the best recruits were committing to colleges. After the big Las Vegas Invitational during club season, I started speaking with USC and UCLA, my two top choices (besides Stanford, but they didn’t want me/already had someone for my position). I was beyond excited and in May of my junior year, I gave UCLA my verbal commitment.
When I got to UCLA, I was back to being the low man on the totem pole. Never having competed for a spot in my life, I don’t think I was quite sure how to go about it. Our practices were stat-ed, our conditioning times were recorded and our verticals and weight were routinely monitored. With every contact of the ball being documented in practice, I was constantly in my head.
Whilst being fiercely competitive, I also had the little sister mentality of “know your place” at the same time. I wanted to secure a starting spot without stepping on anyone’s toes. It was weird territory to navigate. But I still loved every minute of being on that team. My coaches were wonderful people and I loved all of the girls. I got to travel around the country and I was enthralled with the intoxicating school spirit at our home games.
I eventually found my way to a role and playing time. Then someone got hurt mid-way through the season and I moved into an even better spot. I started playing well. We ended up going to the Elite 8 that year and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
When the first week of pre-season rolled around my sophomore year, I got hurt the first day of camp. I went to dive for a ball and felt a pop in my knee.
From that point forward, I was in a lot of pain. I tried to play through it but I started sucking and was ultimately beaten out. I cried for two days the first weekend that I didn’t travel. It was the first time in my history with the sport that I hadn’t made the cut. The season went on and I wasn’t playing at all.
I did physical therapy, but it wasn’t helping, each lateral move meant piercing pain. Finally, I got an MRI and discovered that I’d played half a season with a torn meniscus. I eventually had surgery on my knee over Thanksgiving. My team went to the Final Four without me a few weeks later. I was heartbroken and knew I was done.
After Christmas break, I went into my coaches’ office and quit. They were extremely kind to me as I insisted that it was the right thing for me to do. I cried and thanked them and we all hugged.
Meniscus surgery is not too big of a deal, I could have come back, but there were so many other things I’d wanted to do my whole life that I hadn’t had time for and I decided that I was going to do every single of them. I promptly started writing for the UCLA school newspaper, I joined a sorority (for like 5 minutes), and I joined a college church group and did a missions trip in Brazil with them for spring break. The newfound freedom to reinvent myself was exciting. I was invigorated and strangely at peace.
I quit volleyball at the right moment for me, and I’ve never regret it once to this day. Every person in the world tried to talk me out of it saying that I was “wasting talent” and that I was making the biggest mistake of my life. But I knew I was ready and I trusted myself. I never ended up suffering the prototypical identity crisis that I’d seen so many of my high-level athlete friends go through after leaving their sport behind. I made a decision and never looked back.
Volleyball gave me more than I could ever explain and I truly never stopped loving the game, but sometimes you need to do what you know is right for you -- even if it means giving up a dream and/or letting down those around you once in awhile because something else is up ahead.
It’s hard to push back but I think it’s the only way you can find out who you are and who you’re supposed to become. Trust me, everyone gets over it.