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Anxiety, an ACL, and Finding the right fit.

Whitney McDaniel | Harris-Stowe Volleyball

My story isn’t your typical sports injury narrative. It begins at one school and ends in another. Out of high school, I attended Philander Smith College. I was very excited to be away from the dangerous East St. Louis environment, and for that same reason, I was uncomfortable. I grew up not having much. I was raised by a single mother of six. She worked 2-3 to keep us afloat. Ironically we still struggled. I wanted to attend a HBCU because I felt that I would be most comfortable there. I did my research and Philander was super small and the volleyball program was starting fresh. Which is exactly what I needed. A fresh start. And even though I attended an HBCU, I still had a bit of a culture shock amongst my team. 

I was a part of the rebuilding process for the volleyball program and was excited to make a name for myself. With the help of coach Dustin Sahlmann, I improved my game drastically. I was more confident, aggressive and my volleyball IQ skyrocketed. I became vocal and I was in the best shape of my career. I was on top of the world. I ended my freshman year with “offensive player of the year” honors. 

The following year, Coach recruited as expected. These girls were taller, some faster and even stronger than I was. Practice was very intense and competitive. During a serve receive drill, my teammate and I bumped heads, leaving her with a knot and me with a concussion. I returned to play and noticed some of my skills weren’t as sharp. My grades started to drop. The remainder of that season was very stressful and difficult. So difficult that I decided to stop playing and eventually stop going to school.

Without volleyball, life seems incomplete. I always felt as if something was missing. I knew I had to do something. I searched for many colleges that needed players. I soon ran past Harris-Stowe state university. This place would be great, especially being so close to home. I reached out to Coach Young and she welcomed me with open arms. I wasn’t sure about playing so close to home, I had so many distractions there. Friends, family and old habits. 

Due to my difficult time at Philander Smith College, my grades halted my dream to continue my collegiate career. I was asked to redshirt until the following season. I understood what had to be done and continued to support my team from the sideline. Even though I was a redshirt, I was required to participate fully in conditioning and all other practices. 

It was a typical day of practice and we were excited about the game we had tomorrow. During practices, we always scrimmaged towards the end. I went up for a spike and got the kill. My team turned to celebrate, but it immediately turned into panic. I remember feeling excruciating dull pain in my left knee. I had landed on one leg even though being warmed by dozens of coaches not to. I was screaming in pain. I could see the agonizing concern and genuine fear on the faces of my entire team. I had torn my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and meniscus. Surgery was required.

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Surgery was successful. My mom was there every step of the way. It was the end of the fall semester. The snow was everywhere which made it almost impossible to get from class to class on crutches. My teammates would carry my backpacks to class and send encouraging messages throughout the day. There were plenty of nights of hopelessness and doubt but with the support of my teammates, I finished the semester strong. 

I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. This condition alone made the road to recovery that much harder. My first couple weeks of therapy were both hopeful and painful. Stem therapy was uncomfortable but necessary. The mental toll was more than anyone should have to handle. I was very sad and anxious.“One day at a time, keep moving” replayed in my head every step of the way. Those were the words of my very first volleyball coach, Mrs. Johnson. As I slowly gain mobility, my thoughts on playing college volleyball were becoming more realistic. Unfortunately, there was a point in my recovery

when I went weeks without any major improvements. At this point, my anxiety would start to win the battle. I had days where I would lie in bed feeling unworthy and wonder why me. My anxiety would soon turn into depression. I gained a substantial amount of weight. The thought of being able to even do a spike approach seemed very far-fetched for me. 

I had my friend Tiffany who wouldn’t let me give up. She made sure I went to therapy and sometimes even did the exercises with me. She helped me study and held me accountable. She was not only my teammates on the court, but also in life. Spring semester my grades improved and I finished with a 3.5 GPA. 

I was released for all-out practice which was very difficult and scary. And again, my anxiety started to knock on the door. I feared I would never get back to the player I was. I had no idea I right I was. I hated the fact that there would be new girls coming in and I was no longer only competing with myself. I hesitated to step, pivot and especially jump. Volleyball was just didn’t seem possible anymore. A few of my teammates constantly reminded me of what I could do. I heard them loud and clear but the agonizing pain from my knees was becoming unbearable. This pain was something I couldn’t keep dealing with. At this point, even with one year of eligibility left, I had my mind made up that this would be my last season. 

I broke the news to Tiffany. I should have known she wouldn’t let me give up that easily. She convinced that not playing would be an awful idea and I don’t want to live with any regrets. She continued to remind me how what if’s aren’t the best thoughts to have.

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Although I was in pain, I finished my senior season. Even though this wasn’t my best season according to stats, it was the biggest accomplishment of my life. Sure there were a plethora of games I walked into the locker room crying because of knee pains, but I stuck it out. I was proud of myself for being able to face all adversity. 

I would go on to be a first generation college graduate in my family. I graduated from Harris-Stowe State University honored as a Scholar athlete with a B.S in Educational Studies, finishing with a 3.3 GPA. I currently coach for Cahokia district 187 both high school and middle school. I’m also part time assisting at my alma mata Harris-Stowe state university. I spend a lot of my time coaching for K-Elites volleyball club. My life has taught me to never give up. I hope to inspire all of my players that no matter what life throws at you, you have to stay strong and prevail. I eventually want to create a legacy coaching for a NCAA division 1 HBCU.

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