In the four years since she won a silver medal with the United States sitting volleyball team at the 2012 Paralympics in London, much has happened for Katie Holloway.
She completed a master’s degree in leisure studies with a focus in recreation therapy from Oklahoma State University. She moved from Edmond, Oklahoma, where she had been living and training, to Belmont, California, a city midway between San Francisco and Palo Alto. She took a job as an employee fitness and wellness coordinator at a Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto. And in June, the 2004 graduate of Lake Stevens High School celebrated her 30th birthday.
But with all the recent steps in her personal and professional life, one goal remains unmet — Holloway is still seeking a Paralympic gold medal. But perhaps the third time will be the charm for Holloway because in September she and her teammates will be at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro where the Americans, ranked second in the world, will seek to improve on silver-medal finishes at both the 2008 and 2012 Games.
“For our team to win the gold medal would mean not only did we do what we could to win, but that I did, too,” said Holloway, speaking by telephone from Palo Alto. “And it would mean that a lot of what I’ve been sacrificing on both sides of my life, both my personal and my work life, that it had been worth it.”
The world’s top-ranked sitting volleyball team is China, and it is the Chinese who have been the main obstacle for the U.S. in Holloway’s tenure with the national team. Not only did China win the Paralympic gold medal in 2008 and 2012, but the Chinese also placed first at the Paralympic World Championships in 2010 and 2014.
But in recent years the Americans have been closing the gap. At the 2014 World Championships, the U.S. took China to a fifth set and even to match point, but then saw the Chinese rally to win. But already this year the U.S. has beaten China three times, including twice at the World ParaVolley Intercontinental Cup in Anji, China, in March.
Holloway has had moments when she has imagined winning a gold medal in Rio de Janeiro and “and I almost got a physiological response,” she said. But as much as “I still wholeheartedly want to win and I have a lot of confidence about that, I’m also at a place in my life where I just want to soak in the experience as well.
“I just want to feel like, no matter what the outcome is, that I had a great experience and a love for all my teammates and all the people I got to experience it with. … My focus going into Rio is to get everything out of that experience and to be super grateful for it.”
Holloway was born with fibular hemimelia in her right leg, or the absence of a fibula, one of two bones in the lower leg. Diagnosed when she was 18 months old, her parents agreed to have her right foot amputated two months later and then have her fitted for a prosthesis. Severe as the decision might seem, it allowed Holloway to compete as an elite basketball player at Lake Stevens and later at Cal State Northridge.
It was after college that she took up sitting volleyball, and in time she became one of the top players for the U.S. national team.
“We’re fortunate to have her,” U.S. coach Bill Hamiter said. “With her athletic ability and her volleyball IQ, she contributes a lot to the level that the team plays at. And besides the talent she has, she brings a lot of intangible things as well. Just good enthusiasm for the team. On the court she’s always talking and encouraging, and I think all those things pay very positive dividends for us.”
The 6-foot-3 Holloway is a formidable presence at the net. She is, Hamiter said, “a player that other teams have to look at and figure out, ‘OK, how are we going to stop her?’ And on the other side of it, we often look to line her up against the best attackers of the other team. … She’s just a good all-around player. She plays good defense and she passes well, which are things we also need. But really, her major strength is at the net.”
But as much as she gives to her team and her sport, sitting volleyball has given Holloway considerable rewards in return. The sport, she said, “has been life changing.” After struggling with self-acceptance as a younger girl, sitting volleyball “has brought value to my life as someone who has a disability, and as someone who now knows other people with disabilities and who is really thriving in life with a disability. Sitting volleyball has given me the vehicle to do that … and it’s been a really fun road to follow and to be a part of.”
Without the sport, she added, “I don’t think I’d be as open to the world as I am today.”
As the Americans prepare for Rio de Janeiro, Hamiter said, “the team is playing at a high level, so it gives all of us a lot of confidence.” Though a medal seems likely for the U.S., “this team is pretty focused on the gold medal,” he added. “And we think we have a great shot.”
Holloway agrees, but she also wants these Paralympics to include much more.
“I’ve been working really hard the last couple of years developing how much more I’m trying to get out of the whole experience,” she explained. “From building personal relationships with my teammates, to really valuing and having lots of gratitude for getting to do what I do. I’m really looking forward to this and to just taking it all in.
“I hope I leave with the feeling that I did everything I could to help us get where we ended up, and then being really happy with that.”