By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Amanda Gil didn’t want to stray too far from home.
The 45-minute flight that would take the volleyball star from Los Angeles back to her parents’ home in San Jose was a main factor in Gil deciding to attend UCLA rather than, say, a school way up in Seattle when she was coming out of high school in 2008.
And who could blame her? With the shining light of her life, younger brother Randy, just a short plane ride away, the choice seemed rather cut-and-dry.
Randy was just 9 years old at the time, seven years removed from a diagnosis of autism that Amanda Gil remembers learning about while stuck in traffic on the way home from school. She’ll never forget when her father turned to her in the family car with tears in his eyes and said: “Amanda, I have something to tell you.”
Since that day, she couldn’t imagine being too far away from her younger brother.
And so Gil chose to go to UCLA.
That was more than four years ago. Now, she lists the decision among the worst choices of her life.
A senior middle blocker now at the University of Washington, Gil is loving school, volleyball and life again despite knee problems that nearly ended her playing career. She calls the decision to transfer to UW after her sophomore year at UCLA “the best decision of my life” and is a key member of the Huskies’ fifth-ranked volleyball team.
And she’s not shy about letting everyone know that she can’t wait to take it to the Bruins when No. 4 UCLA comes to Hec Edmundson Pavilion for a battle of Pacific-12 Conference heavyweights tonight.
“I have definitely been waiting for this game for two years now,” Gil said, the passion evident in her voice even via telephone. “I’m really excited, fired-up, ready to go.”
Bitterness would not be a strong enough word to describe how Gil feels about her two years at UCLA, where she struggled with knee problems that she said went misdiagnosed. She also felt like she had been misled as a high school recruit.
“The volleyball program and the coaches and the girls, we weren’t really on the same page on everything,” Gil said. “I wanted to come to another school where I was going to be coached by coaches and get feedback and become a better volleyball player. I didn’t feel like I was getting better, just getting older.
“I wanted to come to a school where I could be coached and become a better player.”
Gil added that the coaches told her during the recruiting process that they would honor her desire to major in communications, then made her change majors because her communications classes conflicted with volleyball. She also said that UCLA trainers told her the pain she felt in her knee was “a deep knee bruise that would go away in a month or two. It never went away; it only got worse.”
After taking her parents’ advice to stick it out following a frustrating freshman year, Gil asked for and was granted a release and then transferred to UW. She had to sit out a year in 2010, and the following spring is when the knee really started to bother her.
“I could barely get through a practice,” the 6-foot-6 middle blocker said this week. “It felt like someone was stabbing me in the knee. It’s the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt.”
She underwent an MRI, and UW doctors found that the alignment of her leg was off and that her cartilage was wearing out. She underwent a transplant surgery to repair cartilage in the knee last summer, then endured a grueling rehabilition process — during which she often questioned whether she would ever play again.
Looking back, Gil can’t help but wonder what might have happened had the injury been discovered earlier.
“This,” Gil said this week, “could have all been prevented.”
Of course, Gil is not one to ever feel sorry for herself. Being around her brother, Randy, has helped put life in perspective.
“Even though he’s autistic, I wouldn’t want it any other way,” she said. “It makes me live my life to the fullest and cherish my life. I’m so blessed to have the life I have.”
Being away from her little brother is the only thing that Gil doesn’t like about UW. He celebrated his 13th birthday on Monday, and Gil got just a few seconds on the phone with him. She often Skypes with her parents and brother, but he rarely has the attention span to stick around long. Due in part to the knee injury but also to geography, Gil has only had her brother and parents at one match since she arrived at UW.
“It’s really hard not being there for his school dances or birthdays or just the daily routine of living in the same house,” she said. “The things you do with a little brother, like a brother-sister day, we can’t do that. I’m really never home anymore.”
There’s no doubt Amanda Gil is far away from home. But she’s content with that decision now. Coming to UW is the best thing that ever happened to her.
“The girls, the coaches, the overall program, everything has been more than I could have asked for,” she said.
For the most part, UCLA is in Gil’s rearview mirror. But tonight, for the first time, she’ll have a shot to deliver a little payback to the Bruins.
And she can’t wait.
“Don’t get me wrong: I am 100 percent ready for each game,” she said. “But this game, it’s a different feeling. I went to that school; I was there for two years. I represented them just like I represent Washington now. It’s just a really, really big game for me.”