Even on the darkest days after doctors amputated the lower part of her left leg, 15-year-old Kassidy Reed never lost hope that shed play volleyball again. The gutsy Missouri teenager refused to let the January 2013 loss of her leg cripple her dreams to stay in the game.
I like to show people that you can do anything, said Reed, who has an autoimmune disorder that attacked her circulatory system and triggered life-and-limb threatening blood clots. You shouldnt let anything stop you.
Nothing has stopped this determined athlete on her awe-inspiring journey to get back on the court. She aced her recovery and took everything in stride, including months of grueling rehabilitation and the frustration of learning to walk with a prosthetic leg.
In January 2014, Reed wowed her family and teammates when she headed to her familiar spot in the back row during a club volleyball match. One year after surgeons performed three operations to save her life and her right leg, the unassuming player from Pleasant Hill, Missouri, was back in action.
I cried, said her mom, Debbie Reed. Kassidy was determined that she was going to keep doing all the things she wanted to do.
Another roadblock, however, soon threatened Reed’s plans. Her prosthetic limb started to cause painful blisters just below her knee where it attached to her leg.
Enter Plan B. B for blade. Reed’s doctor recommended the young volleyball player switch to a prosthetic blade, like the one used by Paralympian and sports pioneer Aimee Mullins.
Reed quickly mastered her new, athletic leg and put it to the test during last summer’s tryouts for her high school volleyball team.
She made the cut.
From what Ive seen, Kassidy hasnt missed a beat, said George Creason, head volleyball coach at Pleasant Hill High School. If you werent aware of her situation, youd think she was just another high school player enjoying the game.
Volleyball magazine found four other inspirational players whove overcome great odds to stay in the game.
Theyre players like Hannah Billings at Emory University. The 5’3″ freshman was abandoned as a baby on a dusty road outside Nanchang, China. Police found her in a cardboard box. The date 6/15/96 was pinned to her blanket.
We assumed that was my birthday, Billings said.
Police took the tiny baby to a local orphanage, a move that saved Billings life. I was a very sick baby, she said. What a blessing it was that I was taken to an orphanage that provided medical care. There are some orphanages in China that put sick babies in a death and dying room.
Billings, however, still struggled to survive. When her adoptive parents held her for the first time, Billings weighed only 14 pounds.
She was 13 months old.
Shed been in the hospital four to six weeks before we arrived in China, said Laura Billings, who travelled with her husband, Bob, from Shawnee, Kansas, to adopt Hannah. She had severe dysentery, a 102 fever, gunk in her lungs, and was very malnourished.
Her daughter also was physically and developmentally delayed. She couldnt crawl, sit up, or stand on her own, Laura said.
Billings, however, proved to be a quick study. She learned to crawl and walk shortly after she arrived in the United States. She could recite the alphabet before she turned two. And she read the Harry Potter series in kindergarten.
The one obstacle this 18-year-old honor student couldnt change was her size. That first year of life is so critical to growth, said Billings, a biology major at Emory. And I was so malnourished. It’s hard to be short in the volleyball world.
Billings fought nearly every season for a position as setter on her club teams. Id have to work really hard to prove that I could set and play volleyball as well as the taller girls, she said. Most coaches tried to replace me as setter or told me I was too short to set.
Her high school coach, however, didnt want to change anything about Billings or her game.
Hannah is the player that every coach dreams of coaching, said Mill Valley High School coach Whitney Revelle, who also coached Billings 18s club team at Dynasty Volleyball in Kansas. Id rather have someone like Hannah who plays big and is determined and smart than someone who is 6’4″ and doesnt know the game.
Finding a coach with that philosophy inspired Billings to dig deeper and keep playing. I got to the point one club season where I wanted to quit, she said. There was too much politics and it wasnt fun anymore.
But I played the next year and realized I still loved volleyball. And now Im at Emory and so happy that I stayed in the game.
Regis University’s Cedar Bellows is grateful she received a second chance to play for the Denver-based Rangers. The 6’0″ middle and outside hitter from Joes, Colorado, worried her unexpected pregnancy would end her career.
I found out I was pregnant after my freshman year, said Bellows, who is now 21. I got married and had Colt in February 2013. When I told [head coach Frank Lavrisha] about my situation, I expected him to say best of luck.
But Lavrisha surprised Bellows. He asked her to come back after she had the baby.
She was too good a student to let go, he said of the pre-med major with a 3.5-plus GPA. She’s gifted academically and I wanted her to get a degree.
Lavrisha also saw a surplus of untapped talent in Bellows. She still has unfinished business in this game, he said.
Bellows sat out the 2012 season and part of the 2013 year. After Colt arrived, she started to lift weights to get back in shape.
When Bellows returned to Regis, she was physically and mentally ready to step back on the court. We had physical testing the first day of practice, she said. And I was in better shape than I was as a freshman.
But problems soon surfaced in Bellows personal life. Her marriage dissolved and she had to juggle life as a collegiate athlete, full-time student, and single mom.
How did she handle such a daunting task? I took it one day at a time. And I managed my time carefully.
She still does.
In the mornings, Bellows drops Colt off at daycare on her way to class. She spends most afternoons in the gym. Bellows and her teammates practice two and half to three hours a day, five days a week.
Her evenings are devoted solely to Colt. I usually wait until he goes to sleep to do homework, she said.
Bellows parents often watch Colt on weekends and when the team travels. My parents have been so supportive and made me believe I can juggle everything.
This dedicated player knows her life would be less hectic if she wasnt a collegiate athlete. But she cant imagine a world without volleyball in the mix. I didnt know what I was missing until I left, Bellows said. I was so happy when coach asked me back.
There’s just something addictive about this sport, she added. And I like being part of a team and something that is bigger than myself.
Finding a team, however, isnt always easy. Just ask Pepperdine’s Scott Rhein. The 6’4″ outside hitter often struggled as a young player to find other boys interested in the game.
Rhein grew up in Maryland, not exactly a hotbed for boys volleyball. But volleyball is part of the lanky, homeschooled-athlete’s DNA.
My two sisters played and my mom is a coach, said Rhein. My family played volleyball together every Friday night when I was growing up.
Rhein learned the fundamentals of the sport during those Friday night games. He was too young to get on the courts when we first started playing, said his mom, Carol Green. But people would come over and pepper with him.
Rhein honed his skills at his sisters practices. I was a gym rat, he said. I shagged balls and played on the side of the court.
During one of those practices, Rhein met former college players Stewart Russell (Penn State) and Ric Lucas (George Mason University). They became his first volleyball coaches.
Those men got Scott, their sons, and recruited other boys to start a team, Green said. They put those 12-year-old boys in a men’s league.
Rhein started playing in elite tournamentsagainst boys his own agewhen he joined the Maryland Volleyball Program. The naturally-talented player immediately captured the attention of college coaches.
But his family’s decision to move to Tennessee in 2007 threatened Rhein’s future in the sport. There were no boys volleyball programs there, he said. My fear was that I was going to have to give up the game.
Rhein and his mom came up with a different approach to attack the problem. We started our own team, he said. We recruited boys from football, basketball, and hockey.
They joined forces with Jay Goldstein, director of Nashville’s Impact Volleyball Club. His son wanted to play volleyball, Rhein explained. [And] we found five or six other players in Nashville.
They also convinced players from Georgia and Alabama to join their team, which finished in the top 10 at several national tournaments.
From a young age, Ive been fortunate to have people around me who could get me in the mindset that anything was possible, Rhein said.
Possible, but not easy.
Pepperdine’s head coach Marv Dunphy applauds Rhein’s determination to play college ball. The odds, he said, were not in his favor.
It’s difficult for someone who didnt grow up in a volleyball community to play at this level, Dunphy said. But he’s a pretty sound player for a kid from Tennessee.
Rhein downplays the obstacles he’s faced in his volleyball career. My dream was to go to Pepperdine and play for Coach Dunphy, the international business major said. So everything worked out.
Riverside City College sophomore Sheyenne Reyes worried that her volleyball dreams might not work out because of punishing injuries to her knees.
She tore the meniscus in her left knee in 2007 as a sophomore in high school. Two years later, during her freshman year at Mt. San Jacinto College, she tore the meniscus and ACL in her right knee.
Surgeries to repair the damage forced the fiery 6’0″ athlete to step away from volleyball for four years. But she returned with a vengeance last fall as middle blocker for the Riverside City College Tigers.
My doctor told me after my ACL surgery in 2009 that I should stop playing, the 23-year-old said. I said, No, that’s like me telling you to stop being a doctor.
Reyes often fights through intense pain when she’s on the court. But she refuses to let those aches and injuries slow her down.
I love this game, she said. And I used to think that nobody would want me because of my knees. Now that Im here, Im not going to let my teammates down.
Head coach Monica Hayes-Trainer cant imagine any coach not wanting a player with Reyes attitude and attributes in the lineup.
She shows such a toughness when she’s on the court, Hayes-Trainer said. And she brings such a competitive edge to the team. She has a lot of moxie. She’s a great athlete who works hard.
Reyes works just as hard off the court. She’s a social and behavioral science major and carries fifteen hours most semesters. The California native also works at least 30 hours a week. I get up at 3 a.m. and work anywhere from 4 to 8 a.m. or 4 to noon, she said.
How does she handle the exhaustive demands of school, work, and collegiate volleyball?
Im not sure, Reyes said. I just do it. It’s draining. But this is something I want to do.
Remember Kassidy Reed, the Missouri teenager who made a courageous comeback after she lost the lower half of her leg in 2013?
She’s still playing volleyball. She’s also cheerleading and may try to run track in the spring.
When she talks about losing her leg, there’s no hint of anger or self- pity in her voice. She believes everything happens for a reason. Maybe this happened to me to show other kids that you can do anything.
Even play volleyball on a prosthetic leg. Or as a single mom and student. Or a 5-foot-3 setter.