Author: Nia Wattley
February 8, 2016
Growing up, I was always much taller than the other kids, which seemed ideal for playing basketball. Then – and even now – people ask me if basketball is my game. Early on, however, my first passion was another sport. I ran track. At the young age of 6, my best event was the 200, but I also ran the 100 and competed in the long jump, too.
My coach was one of the best in Colorado, my home state. With his training, I won 1st place for my age group at the State Championships. In my view, I was on my way to being a star track athlete.
Then my world turned upside down. At age 7, my mom moved us from friends and family to Irving, Texas—home of her new job and also the Dallas Cowboys Training Center. In my new school, in a
suburb called Valley Ranch, I struggled to make new friends and also run track. But the Texas heat was hard on my young body and my new trainer was a long-distance coach, so I lost my speed. Then I lost my confidence for running.
However, I had grown up in Denver–watching the Denver Nuggets, when Carmelo Anthony, JR Smith, and Allen Iverson were the team’s top players. If I couldn’t run track, I could become just like them — playing basketball in front of a million gazillion screaming fans.
Now I realize my dream wasn’t realistic. For one, I am a girl — who doesn’t like to be roughly pushed. And, in a basketball game, I think almost any form of contact is a foul. Still, I wanted to be the next Kobe Bryant. So, my mom signed me up for the YMCA basketball league. Finally, again, I reached sports success. That year, my team won the league championships.
I thought I could “ball.” And I don’t mean volleyball. In fact, in my eyes, volleyball wasn’t “my” sport. In P.E. class, I actually hated it. I strongly disliked a ball coming towards me, and then sticking my arms out to make a high rainbow pass. As a second grader, I couldn’t understand a “rainbow pass.” Which now, at age 16, is crazy to me–considering we were playing with a really big, really light ball. Why couldn’t the ball just go towards my partner? How do I make the ball go up so high without swinging my arms? Why can’t I just catch the ball and throw it back across the net or to my partner? Why do my arms hurt so much? Can I get a softer ball?
After days of getting red, stinging arms and chasing after a volleyball, I decided to just stick to my goal of being in the NBA.
But fast forward to a new day. My mom soon moved us south of Dallas to Duncanville, Texas, where I met girls who played “street” ball. As for me, I only made the B team. But I got a fresh start by getting reintroduced to volleyball.
At school tryouts, I made the “A” team—and I fell in love with the sport. I soon wanted to be the very best in volleyball. This was it. On the court, I wasn’t pushed around for rebounds, I didn’t have to dribble and I was tall. I was at peace with the sports world.
During 7th grade, I made a national team with a local club. Neither my mom nor I understood what “Club” volleyball meant. We didn’t understand the elite level of competition or that it is used a college recruiting tool. We were both just happy I could play the sport I loved most of the year, and that I would have an outlet to improve my skills.
Club ball, however, introduced me to the tensions of diversity. On this local national team, in a predominantly white area, the girls would embrace and high-five each other in the huddle—but they wouldn’t embrace or high-five me. They would greet each other—but they wouldn’t greet me. Even one of our coaches was cold to me. It was one of my worst volleyball years. How could the game I love so much give back so much hate?
I was determined to love it anyway. So, I stuck with it. I cried some. I played more. I practiced even more. I started to see results. I’ve gotten better. Much, much, MUCH better. I’ve improved on hitting, passing, setting, and serving. It’s crazy, but at first, I could barely underhand serve and now I can float serve to a specific spot. It’s even crazier to think how tall I’ve grown, but ironically, I’ve been told I’m not tall enough. To compensate, I have been training to increase my vertical to reach new heights.
My goal is to touch at least 10’2” by the end of this season. It’s amazing to play a sport where I can walk into a building and not feel self-conscious about towering over someone. Every player, for the most part, is my height. It’s almost as if volleyball is an anti-body shaming sport and a source of young women’s empowerment.
I’m excited now thinking about where I want to attend college. Where I want to play. Where I want to get the education that will serve as the foundation for my career. In the future, I want to own my own physical therapy practice with a focus on sports-related injuries. In a totally different direction, I also want to go into marketing. Yes, these are two completely different paths. One is science. One is creative arts. But both will help others reach new heights.
This is my journey. In the words of my favorite musical artist, Drake, “Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination.” For me, that is true with volleyball. With every test, I reach new heights—athletically, academically and emotionally. That is the game of life, but I love the challenge and I am ready to PLAY.