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Former hoops star enjoying a new game: sitting volleyball

Former Lake Stevens and Division I basketball standout Katie Holloway, who wears a prosthesis on her right leg, has found a new confidence after taking up the sport of sitting volleyball

  • Katie Holloway, of Lake Stevens, is a member of the USA sitting volleyball team that won a silver medal at the recent Paralympic Games in Beijing.

    Photo courtesy of USA Volleyball

    Katie Holloway, of Lake Stevens, is a member of the USA sitting volleyball team that won a silver medal at the recent Paralympic Games in Beijing.

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By Rich Myhre
Herald Writer
  • Katie Holloway, of Lake Stevens, is a member of the USA sitting volleyball team that won a silver medal at the recent Paralympic Games in Beijing.

    Photo courtesy of USA Volleyball

    Katie Holloway, of Lake Stevens, is a member of the USA sitting volleyball team that won a silver medal at the recent Paralympic Games in Beijing.

As a girl growing up in Lake Stevens, Katie Holloway never wanted anyone to know. So she mostly wore pants and tall socks to help conceal her secret.
But of course it wasn't a secret. Her friends and teammates knew. And, well, word gets around.
So imagine, if you can, what it was like for Holloway back then. Imagine having all the usual anxieties of adolescence, and then adding to them the feeling of being ... different.
Imagine being a teenager with only one foot.
"It was hard growing up," she said. "There were definitely reasons for my quietness."
Holloway was born with fibular hemimelia, which is the absence of the fibula, the smaller of the two bones in the lower leg. Her condition was discovered when she was 18 months old. Two months later, in one of the most anguishing decisions any parents could make, Jeff and Jane Holloway chose to have their daughter's foot and ankle amputated so she could wear a prosthesis instead of the awkward leg brace she would have otherwise needed.
It was a drastic step, but one that gave Holloway the chance to become what she is today -- an exceptional athlete who played four years of Division I basketball at Cal State University Northridge and then helped the United States national team to a silver medal in sitting volleyball at last month's 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.
And as she transitioned from basketball to volleyball, another transition was also taking place. This one occurred in Holloway's own head and heart.
"Since I've been a part of this team, I've changed," said the 22-year-old Holloway, speaking by telephone from Edmond, Okla., the training home of the U.S. sitting volleyball team. "My personality has turned 180 degrees."
Playing in a sport where most of the athletes display their stump has allowed Holloway to shed the self-consciousness she had carried for so many years. It gave her the chance to make peace with her disability.
"Before, I used to hide my leg," she said. "But moving to a disabled sport, I was able to accept it. The (turning point) was being with the other disabled athletes, my teammates, and being able to talk to them and hear their stories. They're people who know what it's like to have their legs and lose them."
The experience, she said, "has led me to being more open. Just playing for this team has made me accept who I am as a person."
Similarly, Holloway absolutely understands her parent's decision to proceed with the amputation 20 years ago. "It was the last thing they wanted to do," she said. But without the surgery, "I never would have been able to run. I never would have been able to walk with a normal gait. I'm more mobile now than I ever could have been."
For those born with fibular hemimelia, she went on, "the best option to this day is to amputate." And rather than waiting and forcing her to make that difficult choice herself, "my parents made the decision for me. Growing up, I realized it was the best decision they ever could have made. I could thank them every day if I wanted to," she said.
Holloway graduated in 2004 from Lake Stevens High School, where she was an All-Wesco basketball selection. At 6-foot-3, she had the size and the inside prowess to attract recruiters, including many who were unaware of her disability.
"When I first saw her (as a high school player), I thought she had a bum knee or a bum ankle, and that's why she was running a little slower," said Cal State Northridge assistant coach Carla Houser, who helped recruit Holloway. "But then I saw her come in and fill the lane (on a fast break), and she scored a layin and it didn't matter."
Holloway's college coaches and teammates soon found out the truth, of course, but they also learned that Holloway expected -- demanded, really -- neither sympathy nor special favors.
"She wanted to be a great basketball player and to be known for that," Houser said. "She didn't want to be treated differently. And she didn't use it as a crutch either. She wanted to play the game like anybody with two working legs, and she proved that she could do that. And I think that's where the respect for her game and the respect for her as a person grew by leaps and bounds."
She also wanted to skip publicity about her disability. She asked not to do media interviews on the subject, and the school's yearly women's basketball media guide made no mention.
But those around her had glimpses of what it means to be an amputee. At a team get-together in her freshman year, the players were asked to bring boxes decorated with pictures and trinkets representing their favorite things. The kinds of things others probably already knew about them.
Inside, they were to put something more personal and private. And when it was Holloway's turn, she opened her box to reveal the small plastic leg of a Barbie Doll.
When she spoke, it was one of the first times she had shared with people outside her circle of family and closest friends. "It was," Houser said, "very touching and very moving."
A little over a year later, Holloway was invited to try out for the U.S. national sitting volleyball team. After being assured the commitment would not conflict with her two remaining seasons of basketball, Holloway went to the tryout camp. "And it was the best decision I ever made," she said.
"I played volleyball in high school and loved every second of it," said Holloway, who dropped out after her sophomore season at Lake Stevens to focus on basketball. "But the sitting game brought me back to it and I've absolutely loved it. It's fun and exciting."
The game itself is played on a court 10 meters long and 6 meters wide, divided by a net 41 inches high (for women). "And all of it," she said, "is on your rear end.
"For me, it was a whole new world and a whole new sport to grow to love. The sport itself is parallel to standing volleyball, but it's completely different. The pace of the game is faster and the reaction time is smaller. You're throwing your body all over the floor. When you're watching it, it looks pretty easy. But when you're playing it, it's not."
Holloway expects to stay with the team through the 2010 World Championships in Oklahoma City, and the 2012 Paralympics in London. Eventually she also hopes to work in therapeutic recreation. She would like to coach and organize sports programs for people with disabilities.
"I couldn't ask for a better life," Holloway said. "I was able to go to a Division I college and get that experience. Then I got on this team and got to go to Egypt and see the Pyramids (during an earlier international tournament). And then I got to go to China and see the Great Wall. I wouldn't be where I am today if I was not the way I am."
Since joining the national team, she has received a new, more comfortable prosthetic leg. This one even has a U.S. Paralympic tattoo on the toe.
"And now I wear skirts and shorts," she said. "And I can wear heels, even though I don't because I don't need them (due to her height). But I have the confidence now to be able to do that."
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