Various artificial body parts are scattered around the perimeter of a volleyball court at the Raleigh Convention Center as teams of athletic women sitting on the floor roll, dive, set and spike balls over a net 3-1/2 feet high.
Sitting volleyball was one of the hottest events at the Mid-Atlantic Power League tournament March 9-11.
Players vying for spots on the U.S. Women’s Sitting Volleyball Team faced off against The Netherlands in an exhibition, sweeping three matches.
The women who make the team will compete in the Paralympics Games in London this summer.
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Many of these athletes have been playing sitting volleyball for years. Some have congenital disabilities; some suffered injuries in accidents. Others have had limbs amputated because of cancer.
Heather Erickson, 18, of Fayetteville was conference MVP as a senior volleyball player at Jack Britt High School. She is a freshman at the University of Central Oklahoma, where she plays outside hitter for the Bronchos.
A congenital defect created the need for her to have her left leg amputated below the knee when she was 15. She comes from the world of standing volleyball and uses a prosthetic to play the sport she loves in college.
As a member of the U.S. team that won silver in the 2010 world championships, she enjoys playing both forms of the sport.
“I feel I have the best of both worlds,” she said.
The sport is harder than it looks.
“In sitting volleyball, you are using a lower net and playing on a smaller court,” Erickson said. “Passing is a lot quicker, and the balls come at you faster. Sitting volleyball is a lot of fun. Playing is such a rush.”
Bringing sitting volleyball to Raleigh is a joint effort between the Triangle Volleyball Club of Morrisville, which sponsors the annual MAPL, and Bridge II Sports, an adaptive sports program based in Durham.
Jenna Hinton, assistant director for the Triangle Volleyball Club, said sitting volleyball is part of her club’s efforts to expand the sport by initiating programs for young girls and by providing sitting volleyball for anyone interested in learning more about it.
Even able-bodied players enjoy the sitting version.
Quincy Leech, 17, a member of the Triangle Volleyball Club’s 17-Blue team, has tried sitting volleyball, and she is a believer, even though the sport offers unique challenges.
“It is so hard to scooch across the floor on your butt,” Leech said.
The sport’s fast pace surprised Leech’s Triangle Volleyball teammate Isabel Hardy.
“The U.S. Women’s Team plays fast like we do. I thought they would play slower,” said Hardy, 17, a sophomore on the Cardinal Gibbons High School team.
“Those women are amazing, real athletes,” she said.
The sitting volleyball court was a hub of activity in the convention center. When the national teams had left the court, members of other teams scrambled to compete against each other and local team mascots.
It did not take a lot of effort to create excitement.
“We had three hours of sitting volleyball clinics, and then we could not get kids off the court,” Hinton said. “That’s what it’s all about. Anyone can play. This event brought a lot of people together, and they could see what is possible.”
That’s a message Triangle Volleyball coach Mary Beth Finegan is delivering to her team of 12-year-old players.
“Sitting volleyball teaches my girls how to overcome obstacles,” Finegan said. “How many times have these women heard the word ‘can’t’? The lesson my girls take away is to not let anyone ever say you can’t.”
Mary Wilkinson, 12, a student at St. Timothy’s School, watched the U.S. Women’s Team in action and learned perseverance.
“Sitting volleyball makes these athletes unstoppable,” she said. “People have told them all their lives they could not get this far and that only made them work harder, and now they are Olympic athletes.”
If the younger players have anything to say about it, this weekend is just the beginning for the sport.
Triangle Volleyball player Jessica Harris, 17, of Franklinton says she could never imagine life without volleyball.
“It’s the most fun sport out there,” she said.
More than anything, the national team provides assurance that if injuries or disabilities intervene in life, sports can continue.
Wilkinson said it best: “I learned that no matter what, you can always play volleyball.”