If ever you need a reminder that life doesn’t come with a blueprint, check out Amanda Gil.
“She’s awesome,” said Gil’s University of Washington teammate Krista Vansant. “There are not many words that can describe her because she’s so amazing. She’s a fighter. She never gives up on anything.”
Good thing, because when you hear Gil’s story you’ll see that with its twists and turns, agonizing surgery and two-year hiatus from volleyball, not giving up is no small thing.
The short version: Gil, all 6 feet, 6 inches of her, is from San Jose. She went to UCLA, where she was the Pac-12 freshman of the year and a second-team AVCA All-American as a sophomore. But then she inexplicably transferred to Washington, where she had to sit out the 2010 season. All the while she was battling terrible knee pain that resulted in season-ending surgery just before the 2011 season, which meant two seasons of watching, the latter in a cast and wheelchair.
“It was a big wheelchair,” Gil says with the good humor that obviously has accompanied her on this journey.
So when Washington, up to No. 5 in this week’s AVCA national poll and No. 6 in the Volleyball Magazine media poll, opened its season Aug. 24 against Boise State, Gil was basically beside herself.
“I was so filled with mixed emotions,” she said. “I was so happy, I couldn’t stop smiling, but then I was so nervous because I hadn’t played in two years, and I didn’t want to mess up or do something wrong. But just to have my team and my coaches there supporting me and being out there again was just such an amazing feeling.”
Gil had two kills in six attempts with no errors, a solo block, and five assists and even a dig.
“I love digging. It’s my favorite. Even though I’m 6’6” I can still get down on the floor.”
When asked to reflect on that first match, she paused and exhaled.
“It was an unbelievable feeling just to be out there with my team again and to see my family in the crowd and just to know that all the hard work and rehab and strength training I’ve been through has finally paid off.”
After winning its own tournament last weekend and every set this season, Washington is currently 8-0. Gil has played in all 24 sets, has team highs of three solo blocks and 29 block assists, and is fourth in kills with 28 while hitting .367.
“She’s moving better and better every day, but there’s stuff she has just beyond ability,” 12th-year Washington coach Jim McLaughlin said. “She just has good awareness, says the right things at the right time, she’s an excellent teammate and says things and does things that make her teammates better.
“Her eyes are unbelievable. She’s not the fastest kid in the world, but her eyes make up for that because she sees situations. She reminds me of Larry Bird. Larry wasn’t fast, but he could see the whole floor, see the whole game and he was in the right place at the right time because he could stay focused on the things that told him what to do. And that’s how Amanda is.”
“I’m amazed now,” Vansant said. “I can’t imagine what it will be like when she’s at her best.”
That’s probably a long way away. McLaughlin said he figures Gil is at 65 percent, well below what she thinks.
“As of right now 75 percent, 76 maybe,” Gil said. “I just have so much to improve on because I’ve been out of the game for so long. It takes a while to get your timing back and get used to the speed of things again and just do all the correct techniques and footwork that we run here at U-Dub.”
Indeed, because McLaughlin has his own way of doing things. He made sure Gil knew that when she approached him about transferring.
McLaughlin said he was excited but skeptical.
“We didn’t jump for joy here because we thought, ‘This doesn’t sound right.’ We were in watching film and my director of ops came in and said, ‘Hey, we just got a release on Amanda Gil.’ The All-American at UCLA. And the release was from UCLA and that she had permission to talk. So I called Andy [Banachowski] (former UCLA coach) right away and Andy said, yeah, she’s leaving and you’re one of the schools she wants to talk to.”
McLaughlin said that Banachowski told him that UCLA had, in fact, given her a release and there was no hidden story behind it. As an aside, Banachowski, the winningest coach in UCLA history, retired soon after.
“I didn’t know what the deal was,” McLaughlin said. “I told her, ‘Amanda, here’s how we do it here. It’s different than anywhere in the country.’
She came on a visit and McLaughlin said he didn’t ask why she was transferring but only wanted to know if she was willing to work hard and do things Washington’s way.
“We didn’t coddle her, didn’t throw a party, didn’t do any of that stuff.”
He said they were in the Seattle landmark Space Needle when Gil told him she wanted to be a Husky, but McLaughlin told her to go home and take time to think about it. But Gil was firm and committed.
“I want to be the best player,” Gil said. “I want to be the best middle blocker in the country. I want to go to the Olympics. I want to be a great volleyball player and in order to that you’ve got to fix all your flaws. I knew going into UCLA what flaws I needed to fix and wasn’t getting the proper training that I needed. Jim is such an amazing coach and he doesn’t work on just your strengths. He wants to improve you as an overall volleyball player and improve your weaknesses also, so you don’t have any weaknesses. That’s something that I really love and admire about him, so I knew that Washington would be a great fit.”
That first season, in 2010, Gil had to sit out because she was transferring within the Pac-12.
“We knew we couldn’t play her that first year,” McLaughlin said. “So I didn’t really train her. I used her as a great blocker on the other side of the net, but didn’t put her through the reps. I invested in the kids who were active on the roster and who were going to play.”
What he didn’t know was that Gil was practicing in terrible pain in her left knee, one that hurt her while she was still at UCLA.
“My knee was a problem since my freshman year at UCLA,” Gil said, adding that she was told after an MRI that it was just a deep bruise that would get better.
She made it through spring 2011 practices, “even though I was crying after every practice because of the pain. I’m not the type of player who’s going to sit out just because I’m injured.”
McLaughlin didn’t know.
“We were rolling and meeting some great standards with great regularity,” McLaughlin said. “It was the last couple of practices of spring and she said her knee was hurting again.”
“There was excruciating pain, it was like a knife was stabbing me in my knee,” Gil said. “Honestly, it was terrible.”
Subsequent examinations led to what McLaughlin called “this elaborate and intense” four-hour surgery Sept. 8, 2011.
“It was definitely heartbreaking. I was just so excited to play because I’d had to sit out a year already and then just having to sit out a whole other year and have surgery,” Gil recalled.
Actually Dr. Christopher Wahl performed two procedures, a femoral osteotomy and an osteochondral allograft transplantation. In layman’s terms, the first called for Wahl to actually break and realign Gil’s femur, the big bone above the knee. The second was a cartilage transplant.
Then came rehab. It was long and excruciating.
“I had no idea what I was in for,” Gil admitted.
“I don’t think nine out of 10 kids could have made this comeback. I don’t think nine of out of 10 football players could have done it,” McLaughlin said.
“Oh, man, it was so hard,” Vansant said. “She was in the training room every day crying, trying to bend her knee, it almost made us cry as teammates. It was so hard to watch her go through that. I don’t know many people who could go through that and still have the love for the game.”
The mental aspect was especially tough on Gil.
“I had gotten so close with the girls and the team and just the whole community and the fans and to not be able to be out and play for them was just really rough,” she said. “Being there in a cast and a wheelchair and not being able to experience it with them was so hard.”
Especially when the Huskies were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round, losing to Minnesota in five sets. At the same time, Gil’s former school was on a roll. Not only had UCLA lost Gil after the 2009 season, but setter Lauren Cook, the national freshman of the year, transferred to Nebraska where her father is the coach. Michael Sealy, in only his second year since replacing Banachowski at UCLA, led his alma mater to the NCAA championship.
Gil watched on TV.
“Yeah, it was a hard thing to watch because it would have been my senior year,” she said. “But I’m happy for them. I’m so excited for Mike Sealy to be able to go in there and just turn that whole team and the program around in less than two years. To win a national championship. Rachael Kidder, I played with her her freshman year, she’s an amazing girl and for her to get the MVP award and win a national championship, I was so happy for her.”
The good news for Gil was that unlike a more common repaired ligament, she was only waiting for the bone to heal and the cartilage to be fully accepted into her knee. Gil got back on the court last spring and continues to make progress.
“It’s a very slow process and we’re being very meticulous and getting a lot of feedback from her,” McLaughlin said. “The doctors tell me if we do it right she can be at 90 or 95 percent, maybe a 100 at the end of November.”
That’s right about when the NCAA Tournament starts. Certainly Washington, an extremely well-balanced and talented group, is one of the teams that can make it to the NCAA Championships in Louisville come December.
Gil has that in mind, but in her exuberance is already thinking about next year, which would be her second senior season. She and Washington have appealed for a sixth year, something the NCAA has been more liberal with for athletes who have lost seasons to injury.
“I would love, love, love to get my sixth year and be able to come back to Washington and give back to Washington everything they have given to me,” Gil said. “Because honestly, I couldn’t have done it without them and I owe it all to them why I’m able to play volleyball and why I’m even walking today without any pain and it’s because of them that I’m back.”
What’s more, the 2013 NCAA final four is in, of all places, Seattle. Talk about a blueprint.
“To be able to come back and lead our team to the final four and win them a national championship, I would love to do that.”
Don’t forget 2012. She laughed.
“And this year, too,” she said.