I saw Gamecock Jesus for the first time in 2014. If you go to any Carolina game, it is impossible to miss him. Classic garnet BELIEVE T-shirt over the long sleeve, Gamecock bandana, giant white towel, crocs—he’s a local legend, somehow at every game, every time, for every sport.
That year, the University of South Carolina had a powerhouse volleyball roster: Mikaela Christiaansen holding up the back row as libero, Kelly McNeil setting, and Darian Dozier dominating the middle of the net. The announcer had a great way of announcing after she scored, drawing out the alliteration: “DARIAAAAAN DOOOOZIER… with the KILL!” And Gamecock Jesus would get the whole crowd on their feet and the band playing “Sandstorm” and the bleachers vibrating to the beat.
I couldn’t get enough, and my mom started tossing me the volleyball at home until my arms stung. I tried out for the local travel team a few months later. On 12U Regional Garnet, we played for entire Saturdays at a time, filling random high school gyms around the state and inhaling chocolate chip granola bars between games.
As my team’s libero, I threw my body across the court in our thin long sleeve jersey. I wanted to be Christiaansen, running halfway across the gym to save a shanked ball with one arm at the last second and rolling backwards to get up again. At sleepovers, my friends and I would practice shoulder rolls and end up laughing on top of each other, a tangle of lanky arms and legs.
The next year, I became a Dent Middle School Blue Diamond. A sign above the locker room reminded us that DIAMONDS FORM UNDER PRESSURE. We seventh graders idolized the older girls on the team. From them, we learned to leave our kneepads around our ankles until the last minute and roll our eyes at the cheerleaders when they came in from the football games.
What’s it like to be a Dent Blue Diamond / What’s it like to be way up high? / What’s it like to be a Kelly Mill Green Wave? / We don’t know, we don’t stoop that low!
Our jerseys were cap-sleeved and I was #8, the fitted athletic fabric still limp around my small frame. The day we tried them on, I held my elbows at my sides during blocking drills, wondering why everyone else had smooth armpits. When I asked my mom in the car after practice, she offered to buy me a razor. In the shower that night, I pulled it up against my skin, embarrassed at the awkward motion.
Growing up, I never defined myself as an athlete. I didn’t have greater goals of playing beyond high school; I just chose to play because it looked fun. But at the same time, my adolescence feels too tied to the sport for it to be boxed off as recreational. For almost six years, I spent most evenings and weekends of the school year on a court. And during this time, volleyball forced me to accelerate through adolescence.
Volleyball and puberty strangely coalesced for me, affecting how I built a relationship with my body. The very first day I got my period was just a few months after the new Dent jerseys. I spent two hours squinting at the paper instructions from the tampon box and puzzling over the diagrams from the American Girl The Care and Keeping of You 2. We had a tournament the next day, and we couldn’t wear pads under our spandex.
The three years of middle-school volleyball were formative in setting my expectations for how my body should act and look. “If your stomach is cold, that means you’re burning calories,” my seventh-grade teammate told me. During punishment laps, we would hold a hand over our belly buttons, a constant reminder of what we were doing to our bodies. We rarely had water breaks, so the main feeling I still associate with those practices is craving orange juice. Cold orange juice, from the back of the fridge, in a thin glass, the acidic bite in the back of my throat. That year, in seventh grade, I was in the best shape of my life.
But I never meant to play volleyball to stay in shape. When I started to consider the sport as a means of control over my size, I became hyper-aware of the limits of my skills and my body. As my body changed, my relationship to it changed; I got older and thought more about my waist, my thighs, and how I looked when I ran.
When my family moved for a semester and I quit playing sports, I spiraled into body-shaming. Flat tummy trends were taking over Instagram, and I internalized ridiculous body standards. I convinced myself that my muscle was disappearing and that I didn’t look like myself anymore; who would stay friends with me if I was no longer myself?
I started doing one hundred squats a day and running in the afternoons in the below-freezing weather. I downloaded calorie counting apps, going days only eating a few peanuts for protein and talking myself out of grabbing a snack on the way home from school. I was exhausted and hungry, but I convinced myself I was getting thinner and that I would get used to eating less. I did not, and I realized years later that in reality, the body in the mirror had not changed, and did not change, at all. I considered my body much more dependent on sports than it ever was and finally understood that something was wrong with how volleyball affected my relationship with myself.
During my first year as a Richland Northeast High School Cavalier, my wrist bent backwards before a game. I played on it, thinking I had just strained a muscle. After squeezing playdough in the athletic trainer’s office for a few weeks to no avail, I went to a doctor. There, I learned I had torn a muscle and was out for the season.
Physical therapy was humiliating. On Monday and Wednesday mornings, they handed me metal baby mazes, where I had to get the ball from one side of a curly, brain-like mess to the other without moving my elbow. I never finished the maze, tearing up from sheer pain and frustration each time. The physical therapist would mark my progress on a clipboard and then hand me a five-ounce weight. Couldn’t move that either.
Twice a week, I walked late into freshman biology, completely drained. I had never felt so weak. I decided to solve my frustrations with my body by ignoring them, and my wrist eventually healed. After an uneventful sophomore year, I moved to a new school in a new town, where, for the first time, volleyball felt like a fun sport.
The stands were packed, we sang on the bus rides, a boy painted up with my number, and my friends left sticky notes congratulating me after games. Thanks to dealing with the injury, I knew how far I could push myself, and, most importantly, I knew my body. The regular exercise and meals with my teammates further empowered me to be confident both on and off the court.
But the school spirit was masking the tensions of us being held to winning another state championship, and in a losing season, the team became a pressure cooker of frustration, disappointment, and aggression. That season ended with a crushing loss in state semi-finals, and my senior season was canceled because of the pandemic.
When I started to notice myself falling into the same self-deprecating body image issues without the sport senior year and at the beginning of college, I began to question where these thoughts were coming from.
I’ve been wondering for a long time why I’ve felt that I owe something to the sport. I’ve justified this feeling with all of the highs: the friendships and the cheering crowds and chances to travel and the way Gatorade’s taste changes after hours of exercise. I’ve looked back with hazy eyes at the team photos in my camera roll and the warmup sweats in my closet. And while I do miss those parts of the sport, I don’t miss the extremes.
Our coaches lectured us about game mindsets but never taught us how to have a healthy one toward our bodies. I guess that’s something I think the sport owed to me. It took me too many years to learn that exercise does not need to be emotionally painful. I still play volleyball—I love it. But staying active should improve my relationship to my body, and I know now to draw the line at intensity.
I went through all my old volleyball clothes when I was packing for college, reliving our obscure tournaments across the South through the terribly designed shirts. I donated most of the shirts, but I still hold onto my Gamecock Volleyball one from 2014. Kind of for the sentimental value. Kind of to remember how I grew around the sport, and how being forced to step away taught me to be kinder to myself.