Pain and Gain

To see me on the court as an outside hitter with the USA National Team, you’d never detect anything out of the ordinary. The truth, though, is that I’ve been in pain every day of my life for over 16 years.

I woke up one morning when I was nine years old with a constant, unrelenting pain in my lower left leg. It has never gone away.

It’s not the kind of pain that disappears after a round of physical therapy or the kind that goes away with painkillers. It’s chronic. The best way I can explain it is having the worst shin splints ever, permanently. Many Americans live like I do, in silent pain.

Worst of all, maybe, the source of it is still a mystery. Since age nine, I’ve been on a mission to find out what causes it and a journey to learn to live with it. At first, I didn’t walk for seven months. Following failed treatment after failed treatment, the doctors had decided I probably wouldn’t walk ever again. I was the only fourth grader who used crutches every day. On the last day of fourth grade, I remember I decided not to bring my crutches to school. It was exhilarating, painful, terrifying and probably ill-advised. It was the single hardest thing I’ve ever done. But one step at a time, quite literally, I learned how to walk again.

I didn’t just want to walk, though. I wanted to play volleyball. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved the sport. I’ve been hanging around gyms since I was a little kid. My mom is a coach and my older brother has always played. At home, my dad would sit in the living room with us, and set the ball back and forth during commercial breaks. The game has always been a part of me. I wasn’t about to give that up just because my leg caused me pain.

I played on my first club volleyball team when I was 10 years old, and never stopped. Eight years later, I had a scholarship to Stanford. We played in two National Championship matches, won four PAC-10 Championships and I was named an All-American. Now I put on the red, white and blue for Team USA. I get to live my dreams every day.

That’s a lot of gain.

But true to the saying, it took a lot of pain, too. Still does.

“No pain, no gain.” I don’t even remember the first time I heard that phrase — the sports mantra ingrained in every athlete. Even without chronic pain, you don’t get to the top of this business without intimately understanding the truth behind it. As athletes, we push our bodies, minds and hearts further than they want to go because we know there’s truth to “no pain, no gain.” It’s not masochism, it’s sacrifice. The sacrifice of comfort in the pursuit of mastery.

There were times in college when I felt like I needed a battle plan just to face each day. How was I going to get to class or practice? Which route would minimize the number of steps I took? Was there any way I could avoid those stairs?

See, that’s the thing about it: chronic pain maneuvers its way into every part of your life. Pain becomes the default setting. Training in volleyball requires a lot of focus. But honestly, playing through pain isn’t the hardest part of my day. All athletes have ways of dealing with pain on the court. It’s navigating daily life with chronic pain that often throws me. My condition affects everything I do, from the way I put my socks on to what I make for dinner. I have a lot of trouble being on my feet for long periods of time. Wherever I go, the first thing I do is scout out places to sit, even if it’s a place on the ground, next to a wall. My biggest enemy? Not the middle blocker across the net — it’s waiting in lines at the CVS or grocery store. I live five minutes from Disneyland, but I wouldn’t think of going there. I know I couldn’t handle standing in the lines.

On a good day, all those calculations are just second nature. On a bad day, every little thing seems overwhelming.

I don’t always know how to explain all of that to other people. The worst is when people assume it’s all just in my head. When I was younger, the doctors even asked my parents if there was anything happening at home — like maybe I was faking it for attention. Other people want to try to help treat or diagnose me. I know they mean well, but there’s almost nothing that anyone can suggest that my doctors have not already ruled out. No, it’s not just shin splints. And yes, I’ve tried acupuncture. Yes, I’ve heard about hypnosis. You name it, I’ve tried it. Even when people are being really supportive, it’s just difficult for them to wrap their heads around what chronic pain actually entails. Or maybe it’s just difficult sometimes for me to find the words.

Growing up, I never had anyone older than me to guide me though any of this — someone who knew what I was going through and truly understood everything that living with chronic pain entails. I’m here to pass along some of the lessons that my experience with chronic pain has taught me, in the hopes that it might help other young people with similar struggles:

First, try not to worry about winning the war and focus on winning each battle. Ask yourself, can I stand up today and live the life that I want to live? That’s what I fight for each day. Some days I know for a fact that I am invincible. Some days I’m just really, really tired. It’s those days that I tell myself I have to be my best. That’s what being a top athlete is. It’s not just a matter of how good you can be on your best day but how good you can be on your worst.

Second, throw out your concept of “impossible.” Nobody knows what you’re capable of, including you. The only way you find out is to give it all you have. Don’t let anyone else set limits on what you can do.

And lastly, remember that when things like this happen in your life — big, world-shifting things — they change you. You don’t get a choice in that. But you do get some choice in the way you change. You can choose to be angry over this one hardship, or to be grateful for the abundance of other gifts in your life. You can choose what defines you.

It’s difficult to keep pain from defining my life. It constantly threatens to take over. But I know the secret weapon … the winning strategy. The way you beat pain is through love. Love is the gain.

And I love playing volleyball, just like I did when I was a kid. I love my USA family, who makes me laugh and makes me think and inspires me. I love that my job is just to get better every day. And I begin every single one of those days knowing it will hurt. But you know what else I know? Pain is always a part of life, yours and mine. It’s fruitless to try to eliminate it. Instead, I strive to build my life so that I can end each day with the knowledge that the love outweighed the pain. And on my worst day, if you ask me if it’s worth it, I’ll look you in the eye and tell you …

“No pain, no gain.”