Twelve years ago, I picked up a volleyball and learned to play a sport with which I would soon fall in love. It would bring me some of my happiest moments, a sense of peace despite the awkwardness of adolescence, a chance to travel to so many interesting places, the honor of getting to represent the USA, and admission to Stanford University. But, despite all these good things, playing volleyball has not been all fun and games. While training with the USA Women’s National Team during high school, I suffered my first two concussions. Hit first in a USA scrimmage, and then the next morning at a club tournament, I went two days before realizing that the ‘in-a-fog’ feeling was actually a concussion. I recovered after about a month, but not without complications that included a CT scan and a trip to the ER. However, I was told that concussions were no big deal and that I could return to play without fear. So, I did.
A little over a year later, I received another concussion during a practice at Stanford. I was asked to play defense on the 8-foot line and defend the hits of our super-talented middle hitters without a block to protect me. I received a ball to the side of my forehead, unable to react in time to a hit of such high velocity coming from such a close distance. I tried to protect my face by turning to the side but instead, received my third concussion to the exact same part of my forehead that had been hit twice before. Stanford’s aggressive concussion protocol had me on a plane traveling to our away games in Washington the following day, working out 48 hours later, sitting courtside in a loud, visually stimulating gymnasium for our match vs. UW just four days after the initial impact, and playing in a televised match on day six. I was pressured into believing that I was okay and put on a court while still cognitively compromised. I didn’t realize it, but I never really got better. When I got hit in the head while blocking at UCLA two weeks later, I looked over at the sideline where my coach and trainer stood and realized that they weren’t going to sub me out despite the ball that had just ricocheted off my head into the rafters of Pauley Pavilion. So, I shook it off and got ready to serve-receive. I listened to what my coaches, trainers, and doctors told me was right and I pressed on. I was the kill leader and couldn’t let my team down. Or so I thought.
Hindsight’s 20/20, but that doesn’t mean that things couldn’t have played out differently. Looking back, I know that I immediately showed signs of impaired concentration, sleep disturbances, depression, and anxiety but attributed these symptoms to the stress of my role on the team. It didn’t quite make sense, though. I completed high school online to train five days a week with the National Team. There was no one in the game more prepared for high stress and the intense demands of student-athlete life than me. I had taught myself both levels of AP Calculus when I was completing high school online. School wasn’t the issue. Yet, towards the end of my freshman season, I found myself struggling to study and concentrate. After we devastatingly lost to LMU in the second round of the NCAA tournament, I fell into a slump that I never really recovered from. I remember asking friends to force me to eat, to sit with me while I studied, and make sure that I at least made an attempt to sleep each night. I was irritable, distracted, and miserable—and I didn’t understand why.
Fast forward about two months to February 2016. By this time, I had a case of shin splints that had not healed at all over three months despite the rest, low-impact exercise regimen, physical therapy, and footwear adjustments that had been made. I wasn’t sleeping. I was overeating, constantly energy-deprived. I dreaded having to go to weights and beach practice. Ask anyone who knew me well—I used to love nothing more than deadlifts, Versa Climbers, beach sprints, and volleyball practice. I was getting severe headaches about three times a week. One day, I nearly collapsed at the student union due to vertigo. I reported all these symptoms to my trainer, was prescribed anti-inflammatories and sent on my way. But, things kept getting worse. Having no experience with mental health issues of any kind and no clue that my symptoms could be linked to concussions, I was totally in the dark as to what was happening to me.
To keep it short, I won’t go into the details of the following months. But when August 2016 came around and my sophomore season began, I was still on a downward spiral and was utterly lost, confused, and stressed. Everything was getting worse and people kept telling me I seemed fine, which didn’t help, as you can imagine. By mid-September, things hit a breaking point. I had what I think was a sort of post-concussive panic attack on the court, just a few weeks into my sophomore season. I’d now had shin-splints for a year and, overall, was in pain and absolutely miserable. I was doing everything I could to be dependable and do my job. I was trying to be Hayley, the 2015 National Freshman of the Year, trying to be the leader that my role as co-captain demanded, but I couldn’t do it anymore.
When I got back to my dorm after a game one evening, I collapsed. My mom came to check on me and for three hours I cried, immobilized and despondent. She called the sports psychologist. After a lot of demanding and begging, I was finally referred to Stanford Psychiatry. The next day I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and handed a prescription for Prozac. Days later, I ended up in a boot with a very swollen foot. I had a stress fracture from having played on shin splints for so long, except they told me I’d be fine within 48 hours. In actuality, it took me three months before I could walk without pain. At this point, I was mentally getting worse and was utterly non-functional in life. My mom basically did not leave my side for weeks, travelling with us and staying in a hotel near campus because I couldn’t do anything for myself anymore. Making it through each day was the most daunting and challenging thing I’d ever faced. It was like running a marathon every single day and never being able to recover. With my mental health deteriorating and my physical health hindered by my injured foot, I asked my family to intervene. I realized that if I tried to keep pushing through all this pain, juggling school and practice and travel and games and college life, I wasn’t going to make it to the end of the season. It was a terrifying realization, yet one that put a lot into perspective. So, on October 3, 2016, I took a medical leave of absence, supported by the Stanford psychiatrist, team doctor, and my family. It sent a ripple of gossip through the volleyball world and left me rather estranged from my team and most of the Stanford community.
The next six months were lonely and hard. It consisted of me trying to figure out what was going on with my health and why I had become depressed. I cheered my team on from afar as they won a National Championship. My own reality was dark and still didn’t make any sense to me. I had no idea what might have caused this perfect storm of misery and injury. I went to physical therapy three times a week, tried to preserve my athleticism as best I could, went to a psychologist three times a week, and checked in monthly with my physician. But in March, the pieces finally all fell together. I was diagnosed with Post-Concussion Syndrome, a diagnosis used to describe post-concussion complications that linger weeks and months after the standard recovery period. Symptoms include migraines, dizziness, insomnia, impaired concentration, anxiety, and depression, all of which I had. When I returned to Stanford in March of 2017, I met with neuropsychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists and was advised to medically retire. In total, I had five doctors look at me and tell me that there was no way I should be on a court due to my impaired reaction time and concentration. Each also asked me to consider the risk of continuing to play a sport in which I was likely to receive another hit to the head. After four concussions and who knows how many sub-concussive hits, my health and life have already been affected and I am looking at a future riddled with complications. So, I decided to medically retire.
After a decade competing at a high level in volleyball, I’m stepping aside to allow myself the time and space to heal, pursue new passions, and protect my long-term brain health. The more I learn about concussions, the more I realize that there is still a lack of education about them, especially when it comes to women’s brain injuries. It is a harrowing reality that I have been forced to face. I never asked for all this to happen to me. The course of my college career has been changed, my potential pro career stripped from me, and my long-term health jeopardized. It’s quite scary, actually. That being said, I don’t regret a minute of my volleyball journey and am thankful for everything it taught me.
To every coach, teammate, parent, and fan that has been a part of my career, wished me well, believed in me, supported me, befriended me, and cheered for me, I want to sincerely thank you. You are the people I will remember and cherish forever. I’ve traveled the world thanks to volleyball and some of my happiest memories were made while wearing the red, white, and blue representing this great country with some of the most inspirational and kind teammates and coaches I could have ever asked for. While I won’t miss wearing spandex, I’ll miss getting to be a part of moments like winning the Junior National Championship with my TStreet Team after facing and overcoming seemingly every obstacle. I’ll miss running into a locker room of wonderful, wacky teammates who are always there to make you laugh and help push you towards your next goal. It’s those moments of camaraderie and unified ambition that I’ll miss the most. I cannot even begin to express the gratitude I feel when I look back over the last ten years. Playing volleyball has truly been a gift.
While it’s sad to have to walk away from this sport so much sooner than I’d ever planned, I do have things to look forward to. I’ll be embracing my academic passions as I study abroad at Oxford University in the fall. I’m cultivating my creative side and taking advantage of some of the really cool summer programs that Stanford has to offer (also, if anyone works in film production and wants to mentor an aspiring screenwriter, let me know). As I step out into this next chapter of my life, I feel like I have a responsibility to tell my story and raise awareness for brain injuries, female concussions, and student-athlete rights. There’s a lot of press about football and CTE, but did you know that in the NCAA, women’s volleyball has the 5th highest rate of concussions? I’m 18 months out from my last concussion and am still dealing daily with symptoms. Concussions have changed my life and Post-Concussion Syndrome is no joke. Treasure your health and protect your brain, please. Now, I’d like to invite you all to join me as I embark on new adventures…