I stepped onto the campus of the University of Notre Dame this past weekend, for the first time in several years. I stayed with my beloved volleyball coach—who has just recently been inducted into the coaching Hall of Fame for her talent, hard work, her unparalleled accomplishments including playing for the U.S. national team, her phenomenal contribution to the sport of volleyball as well as her storied 24 year career as head coach of the Fighting Irish. It was more than amazing to catch up with one another. We talked about teams past, former players, coaches, trainers, injuries that still plagued, events that shaped us. We talked, shared, laughed, reminisced.
And then we did something I hadn’t done since injury—and sheer survival—forced me to stop playing.
We walked into the Fighting Irish gym to attend a women’s volleyball match.
I paused for a moment behind my Coach, gazing up at the shiny, newly renovated yet familiar navy and gold leaf clad walls, the kelly green shamrock above the scoreboard. A new set of players flying my old colors, pounding my well-worn floorboards, taking a knee before my former Coach. It was different, vastly, but also the same. I was different, drastically, but at the core, the same. We climbed the bleachers. Each step up and away from the painted floorboards was directly proportional to each year that had passed since I was on that court. We stopped and sat in the brand new seats. We sat high enough so that we could see the whole court, each player’s role in varied configurations, the attitudes, the camaraderie of both teams, the big picture. Yet, we sat close enough that we could hear each touch of the ball, each smacking high-five, each squeak of quickly moving feet. We were nestled in the perfect vantage point for the game...reflective of the perfect vantage point for my life at present.
My tenure at Notre Dame was not easy. I had just come from the United States Air Force Academy, still psychologically bruised from having been sexually assaulted, betrayed, still cracked at the core of my expectation for what an elite, challenging academic university and NCAA athletic experience was supposed to be. I had tried my best to clean the slate of my consciousness, to open my heart to a new environment, new people, new experiences. I had tried to thrust my eager spirit in the direction of all that I had wanted for my collegiate life.
And then I blew out my knee.
And encountered violence that whiplashed my body back into brutality, corrupted this brand new, pristine college experience and subsequently, awakened in me familiar patterns of self destruction.
And then I blew out my knee again.
I played, I pushed through, I persevered. Until I couldn’t. And then I was forced to take a break. And then I came back, and I patched myself up, I punched, pinched-off my awareness of the ghosts—both old and new, USAFA and ND—I pushed through the pain, and I persevered. I graduated from the University of Notre Dame. Wounded, battered, broken, bandages and patched. I graduated, period.
It had never felt like my choice to stop playing volleyball, to relinquish what I had worked so hard for the majority of my life to be able to do—in essence, my identity. And because it had never felt like my choice, it had eventually become so incredibly torturous to watch others play while I nursed my leg back from its thirteenth surgery. So often we allow circumstance to dictate our feelings. So often we relinquish control of our emotions to other people, to outside events. But the truth is that no one has the power to determine how I feel...except me. And continuing to feel trapped, robbed, overcome by loss and lack of my identity as an athlete was me chaining myself to the past, while the momentum of my present and future continually whipped me as it rushed by. My knee injury was painful enough, why had I been forcing myself to stay in that excruciating state of victimhood? As I sat there watching new, amazing, shamrock-clad players come together after each play—a quote from Buddha started to bubble up from my heart.
“Each day we are born anew.”
In any given moment, we are both a wisdom-filled sum total of all our life experiences, and a complete neophyte brand new to the world unfolding around us minute by minute. The truth is that I am, and have always been, an athlete. And I am also so much more. We are all so much more than just one thing. Our identity is therefore not contingent on singularity.
Looking back, I have a potpourri of nearly every strong emotion that I could pull from surrounding the game of volleyball—surrounding the campus in South Bend, surrounding my academic, athletic, and social tenure at Notre Dame. They span the full spectrum, from excitement, radical joy, ecstasy, all the way to pain, devastation, grief. Life is the full spectrum of human emotion. And we have the choice to take it as it comes, with an open heart and an eager spirit or not. It took me a while, but eventually, I did the work. I slogged through those painfully difficult, scarring experiences, and I dug deep to find out what emotions were mine, from whence they had come, and where I could take ultimate responsibility, then pointed myself in the direction, the trajectory of my dreams. I did the work...and I realized as I sat there with Coach, in the gym, that I had finally caught back up to the present moment of my life unfolding.
I sat there—not as the person I once was—but as the soul connected to those around me, at one with all that has ever been, and like that which encompassed me: holding the power that creates worlds inside of my heart.
With my coach, a beautiful, talented, fierce and generous force of nature, sitting next to me.
Each one of us is a different person than who we were when we were in school, or last year, or yesterday, or even this morning. We are simultaneously all new and part of everything that has always been. It is our choice what we do with that knowledge in each moment.
I say, let’s live boldly, love unconditionally, and laugh with every fiber of our being...for tomorrow we are born anew.
Polo REO Tate was born in Lansing, Michigan, where her family has deep ties to the community. Her Great Great Grandfather was Ransom Eli Olds (R.E. Olds), a pioneer and prolific inventor most notably responsible for inventing the first internal combustion automobile—the Oldsmobile. Growing up, [...]