Torrey Van Winden is recovering from concussions that have de-railed her volleyball career. The 6-foot-3 senior All-American from Napa, California, not only missed her team’s first-round NCAA Tournament match at the end of the 2018 season, she sat out the entire spring beach season and has yet to play for the Mustangs in 2019. She not only wants to play this season for Cal Poly, but hopes for a pro-beach career.
The low point came last February. In a bathroom of a restaurant in Tallahassee, Florida.
It came after, at 11 years old, Torrey Van Winden had knocked out eight of her teeth diving into the shallow end of a swimming pool, when research on concussions was still minimal and parents and doctors treated the recovery process as: If you stop puking and don’t sleep within 24 hours, you’ll be fine.
It came after, as a 15-year-old, diving for a ball on a rainy day as a goalie for Vintage High School, sliding into the goalposts, briefly losing consciousness, the first and only time that’s happened.
It came after shagging a volleyball — “finally,” she said, laughing, “volleyball!” — in the bleachers, bending over to scoop it up, only to flip her ponytail back, smacking the back of her head into a basketball hoop.
It came after, as a freshman in college, a devastating concussion at UCLA, the school that she had graduated high school early for, trained all spring for, earned her starting spot as a true freshman amongst six other seniors for, only to take one off the chin from the Bruins middle.
It came after, heartbreakingly, a meeting with her indoor coach at Cal Poly, to where Van Winden had transferred for a number of reasons though a prominent one was to play with her older sister, Adlee.
And, gosh, was everything going so well. Poly had jumped to a top-10 spot in the country, the first time it had done so since their mother, Kelly, was leading the Mustangs in the mid-1980s. Torrey had set the record for highest kills per set in Poly history, burying 4.83 per set. But the scouting report for their next match determined that Torrey would be most effective playing right back. She even told her coach that right back was the firing zone, an uneasy place for anyone to be, much less one with four concussions in less than 10 years.
By now you may be able to guess what happened next: A middle comes crashing through, the block doesn’t get there in time. Torrey even tried to get out of the way but the dodge only made it worse. The ball hitting her in the head as she was moving back, adding whiplash as a side to her fifth concussion.
But none of those were the low point.
None of those came in a bathroom in BJs in Tallahassee, a crushing migraine coming in fast, nausea keeping her pinned to the stall. That was the hardest because she had finally gotten back. She was cleared. She could play volleyball.
She could be Torrey Van Winden again.
“I was so excited, over the moon,” she said. “Finally I’m cleared, finally.”
She played three matches on Saturday, February 23. Eight total sets. Played well, too. Only when she cooled down, her brain didn’t. It remained inflamed, and soon that migraine began pounding. She took to the bathroom to throw up, felt all the symptoms she thought were finally finished, only they were returning even worse than before.
“Something,” she recalled thinking in that bathroom, “is really not good.”
This is what hope looks like to a young woman who has had five concussions rob her of everything save for a remarkably resolute spirit that has not, and will not, give in.
Hope looks like a doctor telling you that your atlas is off by seven degrees. You don’t know what that means. So the doctor explains to you that it’s the vertebra that supports the skull, and that two or three degrees off would be a major adjustment, four to five is essentially unheard of, and in his entire career as a chiropractor, he’s only ever seen someone off by more than six degrees just three times.
That is hope.
Hope sounds like that doctor then telling you that, in order to maybe, possibly, potentially — but no promises — get you back to normal, where you once were when you were one of the most dominant athletes in the country, he’s going to have to adjust you once every four days for six weeks, and the effects of each adjustment will feel similar to those concussions you’ve had so many times. And it’s true. That first adjustment felt just like getting rocked in the head again. You’re dizzy. You’re nauseous. You’re lethargic.
But you hope.
You hope because you have a program. You have a set date: Six weeks.
You can do anything for six weeks.
That is hope.
Beyond that, the fact that it’s your alignment, not your brain, the effect of that gnarly whiplash, that’s been sending you to a bathroom in BJs, provides another shot of hope, straight to the bloodstream. An alignment is fixable, physiological. Not even the best neurologists in the country — and you’ve seen plenty by now — can tell you anything definitive on brain trauma. Could be three months to recover. Could be three years. Could be never. Truth be told, they really don’t know.
But something physical is fixable. Not easy, but simple. A six-week program?
Oh, yes. You can do that.
That is hope.
“It’s been so nice just to have something to grab onto, like ‘Six weeks, I can do that, I can do anything for six weeks,’” Van Winden says. “I’ve recently come into hope, which has been a long process.”
This, then, is what it is like to be Torrey Van Winden.
Van Winden is one of those rare athletes who seem to have the cheat code on life. A 6-foot-3, 21-year-old young woman who scored one of the highest at Cal Poly in balance. So coordinated, in fact, that, without practicing defense on the beach, she went to Croatia, somewhat on a whim, with Emily Sonny, another blocker, and won gold in an FIVB one-star event.
“You just don’t find many gals that are a solid 6-3, who have the ball control and drive that she does,” said Todd Rogers, who coaches the Cal Poly beach team. “She has all the tools to be successful.”
Many of those tools can be found in her DNA. She’s the daughter of Kelly Strand and James Van Winden, the former an All-American outside at Cal Poly before turning professional on the beach, the latter a 6-foot-9 former basketball player for the Mustangs. Her sister, Adlee, enjoyed a successful run at the same school while her cousin, former UCLA men’s star Micah Ma’a, is currently fighting for a spot on the USA Olympic team, and another cousin, Katie Spieler, is a phenomenal defender on the AVP Tour.
Sports are what the Van Windens — and Spielers and Ma’as — did, and did remarkably well.
While her peers in kindergarten were jotting down aspirations of captaining their fifth-grade soccer team one day, Torrey declared that she wanted to win a gold medal in the Olympics.
No, sorry. That’s not quite right.
She wanted to win two gold medals: One indoors, one on the beach.
It’s funny, the word choice she used when considering that indoors, with her history of concussions, may no longer be an option for her at that level. She used “compromise.”
So she may have to settle for one gold medal, “but if I can make a living and be happy doing it,” she said, laughing, then yes, that would be fine, too. But while her coordination, combined with her height, verges on head-shakingly absurd, and her athletic ability to transition between soccer, indoor, and the beach is exceptional, Van Winden was always one of those athletes who cannot seem to get out of the way of the ball.
“I’ve always been one of those ball magnet people where I’m prone to getting hit in the face all the time,” she said. “If people are tossing a ball I’m just the person to get it to the face, I don’t know.”
There’s never a good time to get hit in the head. But it’s even more so for Van Winden, whose off-season for one sport is in-season for the next, a process that hasn’t stopped since she first began competing.
When she was concussed at UCLA, she remembered thinking “God, this is such awful timing.”
“But in the grand scheme of things,” she said, “there’s never good timing, because I’m always in season. If it happens anytime in my life I’m always going to be like ‘Man, what shitty timing’ but there’s no way to fix that.”
The hardest part for Van Winden isn’t the sitting out. It isn’t the pain. It isn’t the dizziness or migraines or loss of sleep or the sudden need to sometimes take a four-hour nap. It’s the lack of ability to fix it.
Athletes can be a strange demographic sometimes. Tear an ACL and, while it’s unfortunate, they at least have a set program, something to strive for. That gives them hope. The competitive side of them might even enjoy it, in the masochistic way athletes sometimes enjoy rehab and brutal practices.
So you said it’ll take six weeks, doc? I’ll make it four.
But with brain trauma, that isn’t the case.
“I think the hard part for Torrey, or at least it would be for me, is, you hurt your knee, you go get surgery on it, and it sucks but you see it’s swollen, it’s messed up, you don’t have the range of motion, but then you see the PT, do your rehab, and you’re getting stronger, you keep moving forward, and you see progression,” Rogers said. “So there’s something there you can really grab onto moving forward. But a concussion, you can’t. You don’t see that. You may feel better one day but then the next day or a week later or a month later and you don’t, it’s ‘Oh, what’s wrong?’ I think that’s probably the hardest part of a concussion.”
When she returned to Cal Poly after four weeks off from indoor to begin practicing for the upcoming beach season, she was taken aback when the trainers said they still had to clear her.
Didn’t she just take four weeks off?
“I’m fine,” she told them. And then she took the balance test, the same one that had put her in the upper three percent of athletes at Poly when she transferred in, and she failed eight straight times.
“I couldn’t even stand on the board with my eyes closed,” she said.
“This,” the trainers told her, “is past our level of help.”
So they sent her to vestibular ocular therapy, which is, in layman’s terms, therapy for eyesight and your inner ear, which is sort of the command center for your balance. But her eyes were blurry. A self-described power reader, she’d have to read passages over and over again to grasp them. A phenomenal student, she began to see her grades dip, though here it is important to note that this is still Torrey Van Winden we’re talking about. Even with a brain that wasn’t cooperating in the manner she was used to, her GPA never fell below a 3.0.
But still: She could feel herself changing. She tried acupuncture, float therapy, more vestibular ocular therapy. She took multiple antidepressants, sleeping aids.
“It was almost an indescribable feeling of ‘I’m a completely different person than I was six months ago,’” she said. “Even just the way I process things, the way I look at life, everything is just very negative, you have a very clouded view.
“I was angry with my situation. When you go through something like that it’s ‘Why me? Why now? I’m finally having a breakthrough year, why did I have to go through this and have that taken from me yet again?’”
The doctors didn’t know what to tell her. There is no definitive answer for these types of things.
“It was the fact that there’s no program to get you back. I saw four different neurologists and all four of them said we don’t know if it’s going to be three months, we don’t know if it’s going to be three years, we don’t know if you’ll ever be ok enough to get back on the court,” she said. “Hearing something like that when a sport has been such a big part of your life – there’s no hope. I could do everything in the world and not respond and not get better and you kind of lose hope for a little bit.”
Hope came, as it often does, in the form of a friend.
Julia Scoles, a former outside for North Carolina now playing beach for Hawai’i, had undergone something similar and wrote about it last month for VolleyballMag.com. At the beginning of her sophomore season, she took a fast set to the pin, tried to beat the blocker with a quick swing but the ball was blocked directly back into her face. Like Van Winden, the result was the devastating combination of whiplash with a concussion. Like Van Winden, she was dizzy, nauseous. Couldn’t focus in school. Could hardly read a sentence. Like Van Winden, she both couldn’t sleep but sleep remained all she wanted to do. Like Van Winden, she felt her personality change.
“I lost my joyful personality, my identity as a student, an athlete, and as a teammate,” Scoles said. “I felt like I was letting down the people in my life because I was not the same Julia and it was obvious.”
And yet it was that Julia, the same Julia who had suffered so much, who had struggled so much, who helped Van Winden find her hope again. No other version of Julia could have empathized with Van Winden the way she did. Scoles’ recovery story prompted Van Winden to see a chiropractor, a stone Van Winden hadn’t yet turned in the healing process.
Which is where she found her hope again.
It was there that the chiropractor noticed how far off her atlas was. It was there that Van Winden began thinking that maybe it wasn’t her brain that was doing all of this, but an alignment that was off by alarming measures. It was there that Van Winden received the program she had been longing for: Six weeks!
“He was going over the images and said ‘This does not look right.’ And I said ‘Oh, really? That’s kind of exciting because if something doesn’t look right it means we could find the problem,’” Van Winden said.
One more therapy will be attempted. And if that one doesn’t work, she’ll try another. And another. She’ll go until this works, because she’s a Van Winden, and that’s just how she’s wired. And besides, she’s finally got the fuel that will get her there.
Torrey Van Winden has hope.
Friday, September 20, is National Concussion Awareness Day. For more information: https://nationalconcussionawarenessday.com/index.html
VolleyballMag.com has written extensively about concussions. Our collection of articles on concussions in volleyball from the perspective of junior players, beach players, collegians, coaches, doctors, and governing bodies can be found here: https://volleyballmag.com/category/concussions/