Volleyball is often about physical qualities such as size, quickness, timing, reflexes and hand-eye coordination. But for the best players, greatness cannot be achieved without traits that are harder to measure: desire, determination and a passion for the sport. Two high school seniors and state champions—Emily Podschweit of Chaparral (Parker, Colo.) and Katie George of Assumption (Louisville, Ky.)—best exemplify those intangible attributes.
Wearing a helmet and pads, University of Louisville recruit Katie George may have looked like a football player—but she’s not.
She’s tougher than that.
George, a 5’10” senior setter for Assumption in Louisville, Ky., and three-time MVP in a trio of 2011 events, had her tonsils removed in July. But soon after the routine procedure, doctors discovered a blood clot in her left lung.
She was in the hospital and suffering from severe pain when a doctor told George that her high school volleyball career was over.
George’s mother, Ann, who was present at the time, started crying. Katie George, battling her own tears and shortness of breath, tried to protest. The monitors strapped to her body sensed her stress level and started blaring like a police siren.
“For [the doctor] to say, ‘You are not going to play your final high school season, but you will live’ was not good news,” George said. “I was devastated.”
Devastated…but not deterred.
“It was shocking when they found the blood clot,” Ann George said. “You just don’t expect that to happen to a 17-year-old girl.”
When she was hospitalized for the blood clot—and worried about losing her volleyball conditioning—George began taking fast-paced walks around the nurses’ station. Never mind that she was attached to an IV. She simply took the rolling pole with her.
After six days in the hospital, George started going “stir crazy” and convinced doctors to release her. But this meant she had to give herself blood-thinning injections twice a day for 10 days.
“They made me practice on oranges until I learned how to do it,” George said.
George hadn’t given up on her dream to play her senior season. She started researching other players with her condition who had competed. George took her research to her doctor, who was from India and knew little about volleyball. George told him she would wear whatever padding he wanted—as long as she could play.
The doctor then asked if volleyball is a contact sport.
“It is the way I play, running into chairs and bleachers,” George said with a laugh. “But I didn’t tell him that.”
Still, the doctor was not convinced. Undaunted, George called her uncle, Salem George Jr., who is a vascular surgeon. He recommended another doctor, who said George could play as long as she wears a helmet and pads. This would prevent internal bleeding in case of an on-court collision.
“I said, ‘Alright! I like this guy!’ ” George said.
For much of the 2011 season, George also had to wear a compression hose from her left foot to her thigh. The fit was so tight, it took three minutes to put on.
George made it through though, leading Assumption to a 43-1 record and a No. 3 national ranking. Assumption won three major tournaments—the Durango Classic in Las Vegas, the Asics Challenge in Chicago and the Kentucky state final—and George was named an MVP at all three events.
George no longer has to wear the helmet and pads and is all set for college, where she will play for Louisville head coach Anne Kordes.
“She is one of the best leaders I’ve ever coached,” said Ron Kordes, the Assumption coach and Anne’s father. “She never quits.”
In a journey that has taken her from Iowa to Colorado, included relentless emailing and intense, nonstop training sessions, Emily Podschweit has a single driving force in her life: volleyball fever.
Podschweit, a 5’7” libero and an aspiring beach player, first drew inspiration when, at age 11, she met legendary beach player Kerri Walsh at a clinic, her mother said. Walsh told Podschweit to “dream big” and the pre-teen took it to heart. She convinced her family to move from Iowa to Colorado so she could be near the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs.
She also befriended legendary player Misty May-Treanor and emailed “millions of questions” to Jon Aharoni, the head coach for the U.S. under-19 beach volleyball national team.
Aharoni laughed at Podschweit’s emails—at first.
“But she was relentless,” Aharoni said. “When she found out I just had a daughter, she volunteered to become our nanny.”
Podschweit was more than just persistent. She was also extremely confident, telling Aharoni that she was “your next Misty May.”
Podschweit, who had impressed Team USA coaches at a volleyball clinic in Chicago, was one of 10 girls invited to spend three weeks training in Russia just before the start of her junior year. But when she struggled with the Russian cuisine, May-Treanor—who was there as a mentor to all the players—let her know that she was a guest of the Russians, and it was bad form not to eat and enjoy their food.
“Who gets yelled at by Misty May?” said Podschweit’s mother, Mary Kaye, delighted by the story. “Emily learned a great life lesson.”
Her coach at Chaparral High in Parker, Colo., T.R. Ellis, used the word “amazing” to describe Podschweit.
“Emily has an uncanny ability to read where the hits are going,” Ellis said of Podschweit, who is being recruited by Florida International University and Georgia State as a sand player. “She seems to come from nowhere to make plays.”
Aharoni once emailed Podschweit a drill she could do to improve her quickness, but he never mentioned how long it should take her to complete. Podschweit’s manic response was to run it repeatedly until she vomited her way off the court. But Podschweit has a mantra that she lives and plays by.
“No one will believe I want to be a beach volleyball player unless I’m the best,” Podschweit said.
It speaks volumes about Podschweit’s desire that the major surgery she required on her left knee as a freshman is now barely worth a mention. But at the time, doctors told her the torn ACL would keep her off the court for 18 months.
Podschweit was training again in six.
Aharoni once told Podschweit that to make it at her size, volleyball had to be the last thing she thought about when she went to sleep and the first thing she pondered when she woke up.
“The next thing I know I got a call from her mother that Emily had dumped her boyfriend,” Aharoni said.
Aharoni said Podschweit follows May-Treanor on Facebook.
“I’m sure they’re best friends by now because Emily won’t give up,” he said. “I don’t know if Emily will win a gold medal or become a pro player like Misty. But I won’t bet against her.”
Originally published in March/April 2012