The inside of the Phoenix College practice gym is as hot as the sidewalk outside in the Arizona midday sun. Outside hitter Nicole Goss contorts her body to dig a hard drive to her left, transitions out and comes into her outside attack with dynamic movement and an arm swing that borders on violent. The ball cracks the floor and echoes inside the gym. Phoenix College Coach Amanda Burbridge smiles knowing her recruit is working hard to live up to the high expectations she has for her.
The smile also holds an undercurrent of amazement. A year ago, that play was inconceivable.
It was a move Nicole Goss had made hundreds of times. She dove to the floor to pick up an errant pass in a high school preseason tournament with her team, the Cactus Cobras from Glendale, Ariz., on July 20, 2010. She was preparing for her senior year on a team that was a state favorite and looked forward to attending nearby Phoenix College.
But on this fateful day, Goss remembers, “I dove and hit the ball back onto our court, but then when I tried to get up I couldn’t.” Goss was in an all-out run to retrieve a shanked ball and did a full twist in the air, not an abnormal move for the aggressive player. Her hand hit the ball sending it back to the other court and instead of coming down on her shoulder she came down, full impact, on the side of her head. As Goss said, she tried to get up but collapsed and started having seizures.
Her coach Lindsay Walls immediately knew something was wrong. “When she first hit the floor she popped up right away then went down again right away,” Walls said. “It was scary because she literally just crumbled to the floor.”
What began as a routine play became a life-or-death battle for the 5’7” outside hitter. Small seizures in the gym led to Goss’ immediate transportation to a local hospital for treatment and observation. Throughout the evening, Goss experienced more seizures. Doctors broke the news to Goss’ parents that she had suffered a traumatic brain injury, losing much of her memory, her ability to speak clearly and the ability to express her emotions. The 17-year-old was diagnosed as having the mental capacity of an 8 – 10 year old. She was also told she would never play volleyball again.
After three days in the Intensive Care Unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, the doctors gave in to her wish to go home, with conditions. With each passing day, visits from friends, family and teammates buoyed her spirits. She would sleep for 10 – 12 hours a day—which doctors said would aid with the healing process of the brain—but she struggled with headaches, night sweats and what she termed “power surges” in her head.
She worked with speech and memory specialists and three weeks after the fall, she started physical therapy. She had one thing in mind the whole time: “Every doctor I saw said that I would not recover and would never play again,” Goss said. She answered them simply and directly: “I will play again.”
Nearly a month to the day after the accident, Goss was cleared to attend her high school practice. “I was very nervous,” she said. “I hadn’t played in weeks and I was still having some weird side effects from the accident. I still had dizzy spells and looking up was terrible, plus my memory and speech was a definite issue, still.”
But despite her maladies, her teammates were supportive and rallied around their blonde bomber.
“Even though I think everyone was even more nervous than me—especially my mom—when I first stepped onto the court my teammates were there for me and cheered me on no matter what,” Goss said. “The main thing was I was grateful to be playing again.”
Goss’ coach said the recovery in her young player has been remarkable.
“I think most of us went from not believing she would ever play again to being amazed that she was out there and had healed so quickly,” Coach Walls said. “She did a 180 in a relatively short amount of time and played pretty much as well as she was playing before. Watching her play now you would never have known she had a massive concussion just a year ago.”
Goss earned All-Region honors and Cactus got to the state semifinals. Even though they didn’t win a championship, for Cactus volleyball and the Goss family, this season was a win.
A successful club season later, Goss is working hard for her new team at Phoenix College. Burbridge continues to be impressed with her freshman.
“Nicole is a go-hard and get-the-heck-outta-my-way-I’m-workin’-here kind of player. If Nicole is in the gym, that ball is not touching the floor without her trying for it.”
“My friends and the volleyball community were there for me and my family from the day of accident and still are. The love and support from perfect strangers was overwhelming,” Goss said, adding, “I don’t take the little things for granted anymore. I am very grateful that I am able to play again and that I will get to play in college. It truly is a miracle that I can.”
Originally published in November 2011