Not all professional athletic careers conclude with an injury or wrap up after prolific long runs. For some, it just feels like the time has come for a new chapter.
Ebony Nwanebu figures that time has arrived.
The 6-foot-4, 25-year-old opposite will play in February’s Athletes Unlimited league in her hometown of Dallas, Texas, and then, unless a team offers her a contract she can’t turn down, she plans to shift her focus toward completing the prerequisite courses she’ll need to apply to veterinary school.
“I’ve just been playing nonstop since I was 5,” Nwanebu said. “I think it’s time to move on. I also get kicked off my mom’s insurance in June, so I was like, it’s time to settle down and find a career and start it.”
To you, the volleyball fan reading this article who knows Ebony Nwanebu as the 2012 high school player of the year, the 2013 AVCA national freshman of the year, and a two-time first team All-American, this graduate-school dream might sound totally out of left field, but Nwanebu has always wanted to be a veterinarian.
“You know when you have those little checkups at the doctor’s office and they’re like, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I always said a vet,” Nwanebu said. “And I never really pursued it. I just thought I wasn’t smart enough.”
But a lot has changed since Nwanebu initially talked herself out of that dream. In college at USC and Texas, she persevered through a debilitating back injury, as well as depression and performance anxiety, not to mention going through all the ups and downs of transferring schools and teams.
Then, in 2018, she started her professional career, playing her first season in Turkey and her second in Italy, countries where she didn’t speak the language. And of course, in 2020, along came coronavirus, which first sent her into isolation for weeks in her apartment in Italy. We wrote about her situation in March.
Then in June back in Dallas, she contracted the coronavirus and had to convalesce alone in a room at her mom’s house. Nwanebu gained confidence and maturity as she worked through each of these challenges, and having accomplished one lifelong dream (i.e., become a professional volleyball star), she’s ready to give herself a chance to pursue another goal.
What’s more, there’s Kylo, Nwanebu’s 2-year-old Goberian (Siberian husky/golden retriever mix), who has also provided Nwanebu with the inspiration and bravery needed to even entertain the idea of this major life change.
Nwanebu adopted Kylo after her first professional season in Turkey, and then brought him with her to Italy last season. During the beginning of the pandemic, when Nwanebu evacuated coronavirus-stricken Italy, Kylo had to stay behind until Italy lifted its restriction on animals traveling internationally. A separation that Nwanebu thought would last just a couple of weeks stretched out to two months apart, but since Kylo made it back to Dallas, the pair has been essentially attached at the hip.
“I’ve realized how much I really love this dog,” Nwanebu said. “I always knew I was obsessed with him, but after not having him for two months and then getting him back … I don’t know how to explain the attachment that we have now. It’s like a deeper feeling. But he makes me so happy and my anxiety has been so much better since he’s been back.”
That bond Nwanebu has with Kylo helped reignite the veterinarian idea, but when she started talking to friends and family about her decision to quit playing professionally and go back to school, they didn’t all understand right away.
“They were a little confused because I’ve just been playing for so long and I’m not stopping because of an injury or whatever, it’s just stopping because I feel like it’s time,” Nwanebu said. “So they were confused, but once I kind of explained my reasoning they understood it a little bit more. I think my mom still wants me to play, but we’ll see. See what the future holds.”
Given Nwanebu’s level of success in the sport, you can understand the confusion about why she would voluntarily choose to leave it all behind. But of course, even if the 2020 AU league is her last professional performance, Nwanebu will likely maintain ties to sport for years to come. This fall, she served as assistant varsity volleyball coach at John Paul II High School in Plano, Texas, and now she coaches the 11 Red team for Drive Nation Volleyball Club.
Being home for the summer also allowed her to dip her toes in the sand. Former club teammate Regan McGuire introduced Nwanebu to the Dallas beach volleyball scene, and after starting out with fours leagues and tournaments, she has gradually advanced to playing more doubles.
“It’s an adjustment,” Nwanebu said of the beach game. “It’s more of an IQ thing than hitting the ball hard, so that’s been my biggest thing, being able to read and move quickly and anticipate where things are going to go and what’s going to happen. So just training my brain more than my body has been the biggest thing I had to do.
“I don’t know if I want to put this out in the universe,” she continued. “I’m hoping I can maybe eventually get into the AVP and work myself up, but that will be a couple years down the line.”
Even though she’s almost ready to close the curtain on her indoor professional career, Nwanebu can’t wait to return to the hard court and play some high-level ball in February.
“I’ve never not been playing. I’ve been playing since I was 5 and it’s never stopped,” she said. “and so when I first stopped playing back in April whenever I came home (from Italy), I was like, ‘This is great!’ and then by May I was already antsy again. So I’m excited to go play again.”
Although she hasn’t played at the professional level since the spring, Nwanebu has kept up a dedicated workout routine and done her best to get touches in where she can before and after high school and club practices, on top of all that beach volleyball, of course. During the AU league, she’s looking forward to playing with national team great Jordan Larson for the first time, and returning to the court with some familiar faces, like former Texas teammate Molly McCage. And of course, getting to play in her hometown doesn’t hurt either.
“If you like food, this is the place to be,” she said of Dallas, host city of the AU volleyball league. “There’s a lot of unique types of restaurants. Also, I love the little trails that they have. There’s trails all over Dallas and in the suburbs that I’ll take Kylo on. That’s more away from downtown. I would say downtown is very young, and it’s growing rapidly so there’s a lot of new restaurants and shopping centers and all that type of stuff that they’re building. It’s on the up-and-up.”
The unique format of the AU league gives Nwanebu some important things to play for. The highest ranked players in the league each week receive the largest performance bonuses, and with tuition payments looming large in her near future, Nwanebu will be motivated to be on that list. Each athlete in the league also plays for a charity: Nwanebu’s will be Stand Up for Mental Health, an organization that uses stand-up comedy to help people grapple with mental health challenges.
Ebony Nwanebu might be ready to call it a career, but volleyball, with a little help from a Goberian named Kylo, has given her the confidence to take the next step. Don’t miss Nwanebu in action in the AU league in February, it might just be your last chance.