I was a college athlete.
I had most of my education paid for because of this.
I also had an academic scholarship, which was probably equivalent to one or two books each semester.
I’d graduated in the top 10% of my class, but because I was able to expertly place a 26” ball in a 9m x 9m space, I was awarded a prize few could imagine.
My parents covered the difference that the scholarships didn’t provide, including my final year, or as I lovingly call, “My Victory Lap.”
I loved playing. I loved the rituals surrounding game day preparation. I was unaware of what was afforded to the athletes until I was no longer one.
No longer one? Yes. I played for four full seasons minus the final two weeks of the season my Senior year. I’d had quite a tumultuous Spring/Summer leading up to that week in November.
Here’s a rundown of what I experienced. My body became a tool for the school. My job was to perform and for payment, I received an education. My Junior and Senior years, I’d transferred to a division II school. There we had 4-a-day workouts to prepare. 4 times a day, we’d workout. We’d awake before dawn for a running workout, followed by time in the weight room. Then three sessions in the gym, with breaks for lunch and dinner. I never wanted to eat much lunch or dinner b/c I felt the effects of whatever I’d eaten. The coach who had recruited me had an endurance summer training schedule that I followed religiously. I didn’t expect to play a whole lot when I showed up. They had an experienced Setter and I was just happy to have school paid for. When I arrived, I realized there was a new coach with a far different philosophy. She ran a tight ship, whose motto was: Mental Toughness, Extra Effort. I’d never physically worked so hard during those two weeks preparing for our first tournament in California. My father flew out there to cheer me on that weekend. I’d dropped 20 pounds, since my parents had dropped me off, and I knew he had a look of worry on his face, but he seemed happy for me. I was ecstatic to see him.
Early in the tournament, my excitement was so evident, I was substituted in for the regular and I put on a show. I was happy! Happy to be playing, happy to play in front of my father, and happily settling in with my new friends. You see, there were several of these friends who had been mentally broken over the course of those couple of week. I’ve never been in bootcamp, but I liken it to what I’ve seen on TV. We didn’t have cellphones and internet wasn’t as immediate back then. So I had letters and a phone call to my parents every evening at 10. Often I hung up crying. The pain to face the next day would hurt. And my coach…well, she used a strong arm (and voice) to coach. That mental breakdown wasn’t anything I was prepared for.
and mentally broken down I became. further and further and further.
By my final year, I wasn’t as confident and had lost that “voice” that I’d come to know. I was quite untrusting, but did my best to hold it together and listen and comfort my friends, my sisters, who were going through all of this with me.
We had some great times together. That type of environment, you get closer together. You form bonds that outlast distance and years. The girls picked up the broken pieces when they weren’t really aware of how shattered I was on the inside.
It is the week of midterms and at the time, I was a Biology Major and English Minor. I’d changed from Chemistry Major to Biology Minor because my coach in no uncertain terms told me I was there to play and I needed to find a Major that didn’t have labs scheduled during her time. I’d relented and only had one science class that semester. My lab practical ran late that afternoon because we were to start by last name (V). I had exactly 45 minutes to take an exam that should’ve taken me the better part of 2 hours. I rushed through as best as I could in an hour and ran across campus to make it in time for practice. We were preparing for the play-offs that week. The girls were already in the gym warming up and I couldn’t find my ankle braces. They were still in the wash, so I had to get taped up. Our trainer taped quickly, but I was still late. 20 minutes late, in fact.
And then it happened. My emotions grabbed hold of me and I felt everything spiraling out of control beyond anything I could imagine. I felt like I was reaching out to grab hold of something, but I couldn’t get a grip. All I could do in that moment was walk away. All of the emotional crap that I’d hoarded was consuming my entirety and I couldn’t keep it hidden. I didn’t have the emotional capacity to take another afternoon of being berated for something I knew I was good at. Everyone was entitled to a bad day and I was having the worst of bad days. Before I left, my best friend matter-of-factly told me, “If you don’t want to be there, then leave. If you can’t be there, then leave.” Clouded with tears, I picked up my things, and did just that. I left. She was right and I did the only thing I could think of. I put myself in a much-needed emotional time out.
I cried all the way to my dorm room. I drove for half an hour when I realized I didn’t have enough money to get home. I needed to survive until that weekend when my father would be arriving for my Senior game. I went to my Grandmother’s grave (the only family close to me, since home was 10 hours away) and sat there for a few hours, weeping, praying, and seeking guidance. Then a breeze blew over me and I felt comforted. I poured out my emotions and found the strength to go back.
I saw my coach the next day and that conversation was a defining moment. She looked down on me. All I saw was disdain and pity. The conversation was mostly brief. She said I walked out on my teammates, I walked out on her, so that meant that I’d quit. It was a sharp pain to take in my chest. I wasn’t a quitter. Not at all what I’d intended, but I could see how my actions were interpreted as such. But then she said she would allow the team to vote on whether or not I could stay. You can imagine my disappointment when the team voted against me, the difference was two votes. I don’t know who voted against keeping me. I didn’t care. I just nodded, did my best to salvage any pride I had and left the gym.
I went back to my room to gather my things. I called my parents and my father remained steadfast with his plans to come down for a visit. When I returned all of my equipment to my coach, she looked at me quite smugly. The only words I had for her, “You know what you’ve done in this moment was wrong. You had the chance to change. You are the leader. You are responsible for all of the others whose hearts you’ve broken. That’s on you. You should really think about that and try to do right, otherwise, it’ll all come back to you.”
My father and I went to the start of the Senior game. Many of our regular fans looking astonished to see me as a spectator instead of a player. We left after the anthem to go see a movie. We later had meetings with the Women’s Athletic Director and the Athletic Director. Lots of political and legal stuff to wrap up when something like this happens. It was emotionally exhausting. Before he left me, he told me, “Bianca, this wasn’t your plan. I’m sorry your heart hurts. But this was God’s plan. You won’t see it now. You won’t understand it, you may never understand it. But know that this is part of His Plan for you. Have faith.”
I wasn’t defeated, I let the moment define me. I worked hard to get back to where I should’ve been. It was a process. Long, arduous process. I’m so thankful for my family and friends who stood by my side. Especially this gal…
One of my best friends, the one who’d asked me that question before I walked out of the gym. She’s also the reason why, after 15 years, I saw my old coach. 15 years of carrying that heavy burden. When my old coach and I said our cordial goodbyes, we had a moment together where she whispered in my ear about her regret, tears falling down her face. I looked back at her and told her that I’d already forgiven her and all of it made me stronger.
How many of us are afforded the opportunity to have the closure from defining moment? Looking back, God’s plan was greater for me. Had that not happened, I never would’ve moved back home for my Victory Lap. I wouldn’t have had my whirlwind adventure in Raiderland. I wouldn’t have had the degree that brought me to the job, that introduced me to new friends, which pushed me to meet my husband (my BFF forcing me along to go talk to him, as it was, because we were playing volleyball), essentially my life as I know it. Perfect and strong dominoes falling because of that singular event. While I carried much sadness and depression for years, I also proudly display my achievements. For without that pain, I would not appreciate all that I have to this level. Without that experience, I wouldn’t be able to serve as an example to others of what it means to be patient, to give things time, to forgive oneself (and through that you will find forgiveness for others).
For the record, being a “regular” student who worked four jobs (at one point in time, yes four) was a lot tougher (mentally) than being a student athlete. I had to do a lot more of self-scheduling and balancing. Props to the non-traditional students, especially the parents who have to work, take care of their kids, and go to school. Whoa…mind blown.
My new motto, adopted from my Brother: Every Day Get Better. It does take mental toughness and extra effort, but also the willingness to wake up and try to be a better version of myself each day.