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Heart and Hustle: Four Years as a Highlander

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I have to be honest: it’s really hard for me to write this article.

Maybe it’s because I’m not far enough removed from my senior season. Maybe it’s because I’m sad that volleyball is over, or unwilling to look towards my future as an ex-athlete, or bitter because of the way my junior and senior seasons went. Maybe it’s because I have a bad case mid-term brain and writing anything at this point is just not gonna happen (I know you won’t judge me, because you all understand).

But when I was asked to write an article about my time as a Cairn Highlander, I kept drawing blanks. I would write sentences and erase them instantly; I even got about halfway into having a decent article written until I deleted it in a rage and watched Sherlock for 4 hours instead. I just couldn’t figure out a way to capture in words everything I’ve experienced as an athlete: the highs and lows, wins and losses, the times spent with teammates, the influence of coaches, the excruciating pain of injury and the exhilarating return to top form.

Picture Credit: Cairn Athletics
Picture Credit: Cairn Athletics

So, in a last ditch effort to not let my editor down, I started looking at pictures from my past seasons, hoping that the images would trigger some sort of inspiration. I started to go through albums from each of my four years at Cairn. There were multiple pictures of me in the foreground, hitting, blocking, digging, and serving (all with my trademark volleyball face, which is horrific and I’d like to offer a formal apology to anyone who has ever watched me play). There were even more pictures of me in the background, backing up a teammate as they made a play, coming into the middle of the court to celebrate a kill, or staring intently from the sidelines as the pressure mounted on the court. As I clicked through the albums, I came to the realization that these snapshots were just that: snapshots.

(I’m realizing as I write this that calling them snapshots makes me sound really old and kind of weird. Sorry. In my defense, playing volleyball gave me the body of an old woman; I’m pretty sure that my knees and shoulders shouldn’t be sounding like Rice Krispies until I’m, like, 80.)

Anyway. Snapshots. Only a small glimpse, a frozen millisecond of time, a one-dimensional view of me as an athlete. By themselves, those photographs say very little. But together, as I view them and remember and re-experience the person I was within them, those photographs come together to tell a story much more complex than the sum of their parts.  In that story, I see clearly that I am not the same person I was four years ago—that college athletics has, in so many different ways, transformed my being.

Picture Credit: Cairn Athletics
Picture Credit: Cairn Athletics

I see myself as a freshman, absolutely terrified at the prospect of playing on a college court. To be honest, my skill set warranted my fears; I, to be blunt, sucked at volleyball. My saving grace was a coach who saw potential in me and several junior and senior players who were willing to take me under their wing. Slowly but surely, I began to recognize how much potential I had, if I would be willing to work hard and dedicate 100% of myself to improvement every day. The first time I got the chance to play in a game (which was Homecoming), I was still terrified (I don’t think I spoke to anyone all morning, which, if you know me, is incredibly odd). But my fears began to melt under the roar of a Homecoming crowd and the encouragement of my teammates, and I began to love the game of volleyball, really love it, for the first time in my life. To experience the success of a program like Cairn’s—finishing second in the conference, making CSAC playoffs, winning the NCCAA East Championship and playing in the national tournament in Illinois—was basically a dream introduction to college athletics. By the end of the season, I was ready for my turn to continue to build the program’s legacy.

Picture Credit: Cairn Athletics
Picture Credit: Cairn Athletics

I see myself as a sophomore, ready to embrace my new roles as a starter and, to my surprise, team-voted Captain. I was, once again, nervous, but excited to see how I would develop as an athlete over the coming season and all the lessons I would learn. What I couldn’t see was a year-long struggle with injury, and that the biggest lesson I would learn would be how to walk again.

To make a very long story short, I played my entire sophomore season with a condition called compartment syndrome. It’s a little bit difficult to explain the entire medical side of this condition, but basically, my leg muscles were having “heart-attacks” every time I exercised for longer than 30 seconds. It’s a dangerous condition that, if left untreated, can result in long-term nerve damage, muscle degeneration, and potentially fatal blood clotting. Because of the amount of time it took to properly diagnose me, I played the entire season in excruciating pain with no apparent cause. I was not diagnosed until the end of February, and then had emergency surgery in March. Recovery (which involved me re-learning how to walk) was further complicated by infection, which meant I got to walk around campus for the final month of the spring semester with a gaping 3-inch hole in my leg, down to the muscle. As much as I know everyone would love to see those pictures, here’s a much less graphic one of me standing for the first time.

Picture Credit: Whitney Seidel
Picture Credit: Whitney Seidel

If the lesson of my freshman year was learning how to fall in love with the game of volleyball, the lesson of my sophomore year was to learn to love the game regardless of circumstances. To be perfectly blunt, there were many mornings when the thought of getting out of bed was too much to bear, so I didn’t. I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling and fought with God: how could You give me such an overwhelming passion for a sport and the potential skill to leave a legacy, and then leave me—pardon the pun—without a leg to stand on? After months of wrestling with bitterness and anger, I finally realized: my passion for the game had to be coupled with an understanding of its temporality. Losing the ability to walk amplified my belief that every time I stepped onto a volleyball court was a gift from God. The trial that had for so long stripped me of my joy now fueled my passion to make the most of every time I touched a volleyball, and I worked my hardest that summer to rehab and train for my junior year.

Picture Credit: Cairn Athletics
Picture Credit: Cairn Athletics

I see myself as a junior, at the lowest point of my career. It hurts to even recount that season, but it sums up easily in one word: loss. We lost our coach, and the new coach was only hired 24 hours before the start of preseason. We lost 90% of our team to transfers and graduation, leaving only two returning players. We lost most of our recruits due to lack of, well, recruiting. And we lost every. Single. Game. Competitively, it was the stuff of nightmares, and as I had invested everything I had into improving this program, I felt every single loss personally. However, all the old adages stood true: you either win, or you learn, and I’ve never learned more about who I am as a person in my life. With the words “Heart” and “Hustle” written on my wrists before every game, I was constantly reminded that what was most important was not statistical success but personal growth. With the amount of personal growth exhibited by every girl on that team, I can honestly say that I’ve never been prouder to be a part of a team in my life. In that sense, to sum up the season as a loss is entirely wrong.

Picture Credit: Cairn Athletics
Picture Credit: Cairn Athletics

And, finally, I see myself as a senior: the capstone year. Every senior wants to leave a legacy, and I’m no exception. Setting goals for my final season was tricky: I was not on pace to meet any of the statistical goals I had set for myself freshman year. While we were in a better place to win some games than my junior year, I knew we wouldn’t be as competitive as in years past. I struggled with the idea of legacy: how was I to leave the program better than I found it? My only solution was to set a solitary goal: to leave everything on the court. By my final point as a Highlander, I wanted to walk away with no regrets. I can say with absolute certainty that I left my heart out on every single court. With every picture I click through, I see the culmination of four years of dedication and passion and love for the game of volleyball, and I can only hope that as I took off my uniform for the last time, the culture that I fought so hard to build will continue long after I’m forgotten.

I hope you’ll forgive me for being long-winded; it’s difficult for me to condense four roller-coaster years of athletics into a single piece of writing. If you take anything away from these rambling remembrances (seriously, I feel like an old woman recounting war stories or something), take this away: if you are an athlete reading this article, know that I want nothing more for you than to come to the end of your athletic career at Cairn, flip through old pictures, and be able to see a story—your own story, your own transformation. It will look much different than mine. Maybe you’ll have more wins—I hope you do—or more losses. Maybe your story will contain injuries much worse than mine. Maybe your story will contain personal tragedy, or how you endured the suffering of your teammates. Maybe your stories will end in a championship. Maybe you’ll walk off the court or field for the last time hanging your head in defeat. Regardless of the chapters, I want to assure you of this: recognizing your personal transformation is the greatest fulfillment athletics can bring you. Because trophies get boxed up. Statistics get rewritten. Banners fade. Names get forgotten. But if you can walk away from Cairn Athletics knowing that you are a better person because of it, you have succeeded.

So, if you have time left, make the most of it. Embrace your teammates as family, because they are. Take everything your coach has to say to heart, because as much as you hate it, they’re always right. Cherish every moment you have on the court or field, because you never know if it will be your last. And always, always, always, give all your heart and all your hustle to everything you do, because playing passionately will translate to living passionately—and when you walk away from athletics forever, that passion will go with you.

So thank you, Cairn Athletics, for letting me play passionately for you. Thank you for letting me live out my story with you. Every kill, every dig, every injury, every heartbreaking loss and hard-fought victory, and yes—every fist-clench celebration—was so, so worth it. I’ve been proud, and I’ll always be proud, to be a Highlander.

Picture Credit: Cairn Athletics
Picture Credit: Cairn Athletics
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