Started From The Bottom

Courtesy O'Neal Family

I’ve known about the valve leak in my heart since I was born.

To be honest my first open heart surgery was all a blur to me. I was 12 years old walking around Homegoods with my mom and the doctor called to let her know that based on my yearly checkups I was going to have to have surgery. I immediately started to cry in Homegoods, it was to the point I couldn’t even walk into Homegoods years later because of that memory. 

As an athlete you hear about injuries all the time. You’re told to push through the pain and not be weak minded. But it’s different when it’s an injury people can’t actually see. It’s not like oh I sprained my ankle or I tore something. This was something cardiac related, my actual heart. 

But for any 12 year old, you’re kinda just cruising through life not really understanding the complete magnitude of everything. I was sad but a part of me was like “maybe this won’t be that bad.” Yes, I was 12 years old telling myself that open heart surgery won’t be that bad. The night before surgery it started to hit me though. I had never been put to sleep before so this was all new. Just not knowing what to expect. Thank God, everything went well and I recovered and then you fast forward almost 7 years later and here I am again

It’s my freshman year at Texas, my entire collegiate career is in front of me and I have to fix my heart again. 

I never thought I would have to have a SECOND open heart surgery. I really didn’t. But, I can’t lie to you all I knew something was off. In high school, I noticed how hard it was for me to just do cardio. We would be running our mile on Wednesdays every week and I would be struggling. I’m talking about physically can’t do it. But I just thought that would be my new normal of life, like I don’t like cardio and cardio doesn’t like me, cool. I had already fixed my mind to just having to figure it out, figure it out in high school, figure it out in college, figure it out afterwards. Just figure it out. 

Even if that meant me having to know that I would never feel like how everybody else felt physically. 

I’ll never forget we were doing a sand workout my freshman year. It was really the warm up so we’re sprinting and doing agility work. We all have our heart monitors on and you can see everyone's numbers. I’m watching my number climb higher and higher. I start looking around and no one else is breathing as hard as I am. 

It just seemed off. I called my mom after the workout just frustrated, telling her how I’m working so hard and that I know I’m in shape but it doesn’t feel like it. I’m physically trying to push my body to limits it couldn’t possibly do. That my heart couldn’t do it. So it was hard as a freshman you’re trying to fight for playing time and get reps. And at the same I would be going in and out of workouts and practice, it was just chaotic. 

Courtesy O'Neal Family

I was in disbelief when the doctor told me and my family in that checkup that my condition was getting worse and that I needed to quit volleyball. He literally suggested to me that I start playing cricket. 

I was like CRICKET??? 



I was pissed off. I was mad that this was holding me back again. Frustrated that this could really impact my college career. Just a ton of emotions during that moment. But the second surgery was a choice. It wasn’t mandatory. I technically didn’t have to have the surgery. But to me it wasn’t an option. It was either quit volleyball or have the second surgery, go through intense recovery, and have a chance to play again. And I wasn’t about to learn how to play cricket. 

So when it was time for me to do my EKG, blood work, stress test, and everything else to prepare me for surgery I was ready to get it over with. If this is what it takes, let’s do it. I remember them rolling me in for surgery and asking me what music I wanted to listen to. 

The last song I heard before I blacked out was “Started From The Bottom” by Drake. That was my surgery song and before I knew it I woke up back in the ICU. The first six weeks of recovery, I couldn’t even sit in the front seat of a car. Couldn’t carry anything over 10 pounds. Six weeks of doing absolutely no physical activity. Followed by three months of healing my sternum, getting back to intense cardio, and lifting to get back into volleyball shape. 

But it never once crossed my mind to just hang it up and be done. NEVER. You’re taught so much as an athlete to never give up and just push through but now I’m starting to realize that in addition to what a normal athlete sacrifices for their sport, I’ve sacrificed a lot to be able to stay in this sport for as long as I can.

I’ve not only sacrificed just for volleyball, but for my life. 

So it's a really weird relationship at times. Volleyball is a major part of me and a reason why I've gone through two open heart surgeries. But, I also know that I am more than that. 

Yeah, I want people to know about two-time national champion Asjia O’Neal (which does have a great ring to it haha). But I also want people to know about me as a human being. That I’m a headstrong person that throughout my time here in Texas I have been a person that wanted to impact positive change around this university. That I’ve worked with multiple departments on campus to help with social justice and our Black Lives Matter movement.

I know that volleyball is how alot of people have been introduced to me but there’s other sides I want people to see. That there’s more than just the girl you see on the court who is screaming and staring people down. Throughout my journey, I’ve learned what type of individual I am and what I want to fight for and what I think is worth fighting for. It was worth fighting for volleyball to stay in my life, it was worth fighting for the social justice of people, it was worth fighting for Texas to have another national championship, and it was worth me fighting to become the woman I am today. 

Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty

When people ask me “why Texas?”, I think back to when I was in the seventh grade at my house in my living room watching Haley Eckerman and Khat Bell wear those Texas uniforms and  go to work. That was when Texas had won in 2012, so  I’m just sitting there watching my two favorite players at the time. Two Black women just play so raw, aggressive, and with this passion that I wouldn’t see all the time in volleyball. It’s more of a calm and subdued type of sport so seeing them just be these insane athletes while being strong, powerful, Black women. I saw that and immediately said I wanted to go there. 

Once I got to high school though it was between USC or Texas. I visited USC and got to be in LA and I’m like “O.K. this is cool, I could see myself here.” Then I visited Texas and it was a done deal. No more visits, no more trips, this is home

It just felt right. And I know a lot of people say that when it comes to choosing a school but it really did feel right. The program and what they stood for in you becoming the best person and volleyball player you could be. Not this cookie cutter version of what you get told a volleyball player is supposed to be but what you want to be. The most authentic version of yourself and I give a lot of credit to Coach Jerritt because he established a culture there that made it comfortable for me a Black woman to feel I could be my entire self. 

They were telling me during the tournament that I needed to relax and calm down. And shoutout to Jerritt because he stood 10 toes down behind me. He would just look at me and be like “do whatever you got to do.” I’m not disrespecting anyone on the court but you can’t tell me I can’t yell. I’m going to yell and show this fire. So when I get a video of a young girl who’s a middle blocker and she blocks somebody and stares them down like me, I know I’m making an impact. That you don’t have to play a certain way because they tell you to. You can play like yourself even if they think it’s too much. 

Maybe it’s something I got from my dad just growing up watching him play in the NBA. It made me feel it was O.K. to yell and have more fire in you when you play. In men’s sports it’s more accepted to show emotion like that. And since my dad was doing it, it became normal to me. When I first started playing volleyball, I felt I had to fit in this mold of everyone else and how they acted. Eventually I had to figure out that I had to act like Asjia to thrive. 

The yelling through the net. The stare downs. Passionate Asjia. 

David Buono/Icon Sportswire via AP

And I’ll take the yellow cards any day if that means more girls can play with that passion. Give me all the yellow cards then. If that is what it takes for other girls to start to comfortably be themselves when they play at any level of volleyball then so be it. It’s an exciting time for volleyball and I'm glad that I can be one of the players that people look at and say “that’s how I want to play.” 

I swear I was born this way, I still remember my first ever volleyball game. I’m telling you guys, before the match started I was ready to play. I didn’t know all the rules at the time, but I did know the goal was for us to not let the other team score a point. Which was all I needed to know —easy.  The other team serves the ball and without hesitation, I block the serve at the net. I’m looking around all happy and excited until I realize everybody is looking at me like I did something wrong…Because I did. 

You can’t block a serve haha.  

It’s funny looking back at that because that raw love was there from the beginning. 

And it’s honestly amazing to see how diverse the sport is becoming and seeing these girls have that same love and fire for it. Having young girls come up to me or anyone on the team after the matches and talk about how we inspire them or their parents saying thank you for being somebody who they can look up to when they watch us on tv. It's such an awesome and humbling feeling. 

And I think NCAA volleyball is going to have to realize that that's probably going to become the norm. I understand there are rules and they say the rule is you can't look through the net. Which I think is an interesting rule in general, but as the sport continues to progress they're gonna have to make some changes. 

I think back to sitting in my living room saying this was the place I wanted to be because I saw people like me playing how I wanted to play. The staff was diverse, the players were diverse, I saw this blueprint of what I wanted to be a part of. 

Maybe this next thing will come as a shocker to a lot of people but I owe it to you all to tell you. Before we won the national championship last year, I was dead set on not returning for my 6th year. Don’t get me wrong, me leaving wasn’t like a “I’m trying to get away from Texas” type of thing. I was just feeling like this ran its course perfectly. I’m leaving with a lot of my teammates that I came in with, it just felt like the right time. 

Then… Me and Jerritt started talking about it. And this back and forth went on for months. He’s trying to convince me to stay and I’m trying to leave. So, I took some time with my family to try to really decide what to do. 

Then October comes around, a couple months before we win the natty and I’m talking to Jerritt letting him know that I didn’t want this to be over just yet. That I was going to stay and he’s sitting there telling me, “you’ll be the first player ever to go back to back at Texas. You would be in the record books forever.” 

I’m looking at him with that look where it’s like half you believe someone and the other half you’re like yeah O.K. that sounds good lol. But Jerritt was right.  

I loved this team too much not to give them one more year. Being around these girls and knowing how selfless they are. There was also a big culture shift in the program with David Hunt, that played a huge part in me staying because it gave me a refresh and kinda reinvigorated that love for volleyball for me again. 

And that refresh helped our team accept that we weren’t the same team from last year. Once you win a championship, that next year you feel too much pressure to be perfect. This was a new team with different skill sets, we had a freshman setter, a sophomore as a libero, transfers. Us losing those games earlier in the season was the best thing to happen to us. To become comfortable with that underdog mentality. That we didn’t care if anyone believed in us or not, we were going to go out there and play for each other. 

Every round of the tournament everyone was expecting us to lose. First round, second round, it was just everyone had it made it up in their mind we would not win. But, Jerritt and David kept telling us the goal was for us to peak in December not September. 

I know one thing everybody talks about when it comes to the national championship was that our serving was the best they’ve seen from us all tournament. And it’s really funny to me because after the Wisconsin game I just remember going to the coaches and saying “I feel like I can’t serve right now.” I just couldn’t find a feel or a gauge for my serve even that morning. I’m getting all frustrated and the coaches are just like you’ll be fine just trust yourself. 

Once that first ace happened, then the second, I was like ohhhkayyyy I’m feeling it now haha. Then I hit the third and fourth ace, and I’m just thinking this is insane. I wish I could explain it better for everyone but truly it was an out of body experience. I don’t even think it was me serving. Looking back at the film, the serves had literally no spin at all, they were just floating so well. 

If you would’ve told me that I was going to serve an ace for the championship point in my last year, I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s really ironic because I  remember telling Kaylei after she served an ace for championship point last year how legendary that was. I would be telling her like people are going to remember that forever and that everytime they show that game, they’re going to be watching you serve an ace for the championship like that’s so cool. 

We kept telling ourselves throughout the tournament to set the tone in the first five points. That in those first five points is where we can gain our  confidence and momentum. And once we have that then we’re a hard team to beat. How we were playing so in sync helped us to get to that point in the match where it starts to become a reality you’re about to win. As I’m standing back there to serve, I’m not even thinking about it too much. I’m kinda coming to terms that we are in a good position to win being up like we were but that I just want to put over a good serve. 

It was like deja vu. The ace. The championship. Us running to the floor and just crying. Really realizing how we just played lights out in a game no one had us as the favorites. It really hit me once I got back to the locker room. That my last point of college volleyball was an ace for my second national championship. The game and that moment was just beautiful. 

Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty

I’ve shared a lot of moments with my family, just them being there for me endlessly throughout everything. The highest honor is your parents being proud of you. They’ve sacrificed so much for me to get to this point. I rely on them and I think the world of them, they're the most incredible parents ever. I know everyone says that, but I truly do mean that. The sacrifices that they've made for me and my brother to get us where we are today. So the fact that they're proud of me and feel like their work as parents has translated to me being a successful woman and player  makes me feel like I'm doing something right.

I always like to say I have a mix of both my parents. On that court I’m like my dad. Aggressive, passionate, competitive. He doesn't usually give me a ton of pep talks but before those last couple of matches he sent me some messages of him telling me how proud he is of me and my career really got me emotional. 

Courtesy O’Neal Family

And I have to say this because I know they show my dad a lot and talk about him which is great BUT my mom wants me to let y’all know she’s at the games too haha. Even at more games than my dad. So she deserves some more recognition, she’s with me right now while I’m writing this and moving out of my apartment.. So this is me giving my mom her shoutout so y’all can know her too. 

I’m not just Jermaine O’Neal’s daughter, I’m Mesha O’Neal’s daughter  too. 

These last few months have really been a whirlwind. I’m trying to stay in the moment while also wanting to celebrate my accomplishments. After we had got back from the Stanford match, I was home for maybe 30 hours. I’m trying to pack and do laundry to leave for Tampa while also finding out that I was drafted #1 overall in the Pro Volleyball Federation and that my new home would be in Ohio. Really thinking that I’m going to be a part of the first inaugural season of the first pro volleyball league in America is huge. Then the first pick??? It’s crazy. While processing that, I’m thinking about how I’m going to be with the national team this summer trying to fight to make an Olympic roster spot. 

I’m grateful I really am. I’m proud of myself. And at the same time I’m not satisfied yet. Because I know there is more work to be done. 

With my college career being over, I started to sit and think about what it takes to be a Longhorn. It takes a different type of person, the mindset, the personality. It’s the reason our fans support us how they do. Nothing compares to Longhorn fans — you ride for us, you care about us, you always believed in me. You stood beside this team no matter what.

Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty

To the coaches and staff, I can never say thank you enough. You took an 18 year old girl and allowed her to become the most authentic version of herself. This program is a family, one that I’m so thankful that I chose. 

Two national championships later, I won’t say I’m a Longhorn legend. On paper others will say that I am, Jerritt said if I went back to back that I'm in the record books forever. I’ll just say that I love the University of Texas and whenever y’all want me there, I’ll be there. And if y’all say I’m a Longhorn legend then it’s an honor I’ll wear forever.