Being an athlete there is a question that I am frequently asked; Why do you wear the number seventeen?
I usually reply with the short version of “Well, my number is actually 10. My sister wore number 17 so it’s really her number. I wear it for her.”
Short and sweet. But, not many people really know the significance of why it is so special to me to first, wear this number and second, answer that question the way I do.
My biggest role model and teacher in volleyball and in life is my older sister, Elizabeth. She is a year and half older than me and began playing volleyball when she was about 8 years old. The youngest level of club ball in the area was a 12 and under team. So, as an 8 year old my sister was playing with girls 2-4 years older than her, and succeeding.
She would come home from practice and teach me everything she had learned. For HOURS we would hit the ball back and forth over the net in the back yard. Only taking a break to eat and sleep. I vividly remember us struggling to get 5 passes to each other in a row without messing up. When we finally got it we were overjoyed and celebrated like we won an Olympic event. This happened with peppering, serving, setting, etc. any and all volleyball skills. This continued through middle school. In our back yard there are two pine trees that cast two shadows over the lawn all day, so we would work on our ball control all day long and we were not allowed to step out of our individual shadow. I could go on and on about the different drills and goals we made for ourselves day in and day out. When it rained or was cold out we would bring the game into the living room. (This still happens. I should also note that to this day no lamps in the Horner house have been broken by volleyballs 🙂 ) By the time we were in high school and playing club ball we could read each other’s minds on the court. I could give her a certain look with my eyes and she knew exactly what I was thinking, and vice versa. It would really mess with our teammates and coaches sometimes… oopies.
Fast forward to 2007 And Elizabeth and I are playing in the Northeast Qualifier tournament at the Pittsburgh Convention Center. There was a long rally and as she went after a ball Liz dove to her left and slammed the back of her head into the floor. The only thing between her head and the concrete floor of the convention center was a thin 1.5 inch piece of plastic, AKA sport court. She walked off the court dizzy and with some blurred vision. When we got home and she was able to get into the doctors they diagnosed her with a mild concussion. During her recovery she was not allowed to read, write, listen to music, watch movies… the list goes on. Basically, she couldn’t middle school anymore. It took her several months to recover. There was no brain damage. Once fully recovered she was still normal and continued playing volleyball 24/7.
Fast forward again, a couple thousand miles traveled up and down the east coast and probably hundreds of grandma’s chocolate mayonnaise cakes later and its spring 2013. Liz is competing in her sophomore spring season at UPenn and gets hit in the head, this time by a ball. We were visiting her that weekend because I was playing at a tournament in Philly. I remember her eyes looking weird, hazy and unable to focus. She went to place her cup on the table and completely missed by 3 inches but was able to recover and find the table before she let go of the glass. It was obvious that something was not right. She got some extensions on her classes that semester so she wouldn’t be rushed to finish them. Her brain just wasn’t functioning at its normal capacity. Getting an Ivy League education means your brain needs to be functioning at %100, %100 of the time. After that semester she came home and worked all summer, she didn’t give her body enough time to rest and regroup before the hectic fall schedule that volleyball demands. The fall rolled around and preseason started off just like the spring. Hit, shank, Liz’s head. UGH. How many times does this have to happen? Like seriously? Her trainers took good care of her and got her ready to get back into practice a few days later. When, BAM! trainers elbow collides with Liz’s head. Lights out.
Well, not really lights out. She didn’t black out or anything like that but all the symptoms came back with a vengeance. Elizabeth dropped out of all classes and responsibilities at UPenn and moved back home.
During this time I had just started by freshman year at Mississippi State. So, I did not take this hit (lol, punny) as hard as my family.
Okay, maybe you thought my sense of humor there was inappropriate but I’m going to start laying down some heavy things Elizabeth endured and my family has gone through with her. The Horner’s are jokesters and we love a good laugh. If we don’t try and find humor in the small things to lighten the mood during this process the pain has the potential to literally swallow us alive.
Now, Elizabeth was the most composed person I’ve known in my life. Being her sister and best friend growing up I could tell when she was pissed off and I needed to keep my distance or so overjoyed about something that I could celebrate with her. I rarely saw her cry. It’s almost like she didn’t know how.
I think we all have someone like this in our lives.
Think of that kind of person you know.
Okay, now imagine them crying when asked if they want green beans at the dinner table. Or being so flustered about choosing tea or coffee that they sit there forever not making a decision because they don’t know which is right and don’t want to choose wrong. GUYS, THIS GIRL WAS AT AN IVY LEAGUE SCHOOL TAKING ARCHITECTURE CLASSES 12 MONTHS AGO. And, now, no reading or writing, no looking at screens or listening to music, not able to be in loud or bright environments. Wearing sunglasses in the house. She slept for 23 hours a day. The hour she was awake all she could do was sit and stare at the wall in front of her. Head throbbing, thoughtless. If there ever was a thought floating around in there it was dark and painful. Gradually she was able to find herself do more around the house. Like walk from her room to the kitchen without getting exhausted. There are many more stories like this, I could write/talk about this for hours, but I’ll spare you the details.
Forgetfulness. Pain. Bi-polar behavior. Fear. Uncontrollable emotions.
These are feelings felt by not only Elizabeth, but my mom and sisters as they took care of her. Again, I wasn’t present most of this time and a lot of what I’m writing are taken from conversations I’ve had with my family who took the brunt of helping Elizabeth cope.
The brain trauma she experienced was very intense. I’m struggling to find the words to describe the exact intenseness of the last three years.
With this final blow to the head came the loss of many things for Liz, one of them being volleyball. Elizabeth cannot really ever play competitive volleyball again. We had dreams and aspirations to do big things together on the volleyball court. Through this whole process she has been more optimistic about her opportunity to play again than I have. When she brings it up I try and change the subject or just ‘play along’ with the idea. But, knowing her on a deeper level than most, I know she will never give up on those dreams.
(tears are starting)
This leads me to that little seemingly insignificant question I mentioned at the beginning; Why do you wear the number seventeen?
When I transferred to Iowa State during the spring of my freshman year my number (10) was already taken. The first option I was given was #17 and I immediately knew I had to take it.
Elizabeth wore the #17 since the first day she played volleyball. As far as I know she really didn’t have any reason as to why she chose that number. I like to think she chose it without any reason so I could choose it with a reason 12 years down the road.
Today, I wear the number seventeen to keep her dreams alive. When I put that jersey on there is no doubt who I am playing for, I’m playing for Liz. It’s a reminder that life is precious. That the opportunity to play sports in a privilege. There are so many people who wish they could be playing D1 volleyball and there are many days I take it for granted. I hate seeing Elizabeth in so much pain. It hurts my heart that there is nothing I can do to heal her and make her %100 again. Oh, what I would do to play one, just one, more point of competitive volleyball with her again!! It could happen. But, in the meantime, in the midst of uncertainty, what can I do? I feel helpless. I’ve learned that there is one thing. I can play every point like it’s my last. I can show up to practice every day with a smile on my face because I am blessed with the opportunity to get better. I can rejoice and take full advantage of the obstacles placed in front of me because I have the physical or mental capability to do so.
This is something we can all do, and it does not stop or really start with your sport. This is a mentality you can (and should, I mean NEED) to take into every aspect of your life. Guys, school gets hard, I know that. But, you know what? School being hard is a lot nicer problem than trying to figure out where your next meal is coming from. When the water in your shower is cold be glad you actually have water to take a shower. When you have the opportunity to play your sport acknowledge what a blessing that is. Sports are games, jeez, it’s not that serious! Go out and have FUN! Be happy you have the ability to do so and give it all you got! Don’t take these things for granted, because you don’t know when they could be taken from you.
R O M A N S 5 : 3 – 4 ( E S V )
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,”