Unleashed: How Can You Not Root For Amanda Gil?
Aug. 15, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - On the schedule, the Huskies' home volleyball match next week against Boise State is the opener to another championship-caliber season.
To Amanda Gil, next Friday may be the greatest day of her 21 years on earth.
Just eleven months ago, Gil was being pushed around Alaska Airlines Arena at home matches by her grandmother, Karin Gil. She had moved from California to be Amanda's in-home caregiver for months. That's because her granddaughter needed help eating, bathing, even going to the bathroom, the result of an unusual leg and knee surgery that derailed her athletic career and her life.
"It was like being an infant again," Amanda says.
Now, she's back to being a giant.
Last week, after all the pain and crying and loneliness and doubt of seemingly endless rehabilitation, the 6-foot-6 Gil was fully, medically cleared to play for the first time as a Husky. So UW's opener will be the first competitive match in almost three years for the former all-conference transfer from UCLA.
"I'm so excited!" she told me giddily over the phone Wednesday, a rare off day during coach Jim McLaughlin's meticulous preparation for the season.
"I'm just excited to be walking around again!"
She hasn't played since the end of 2009, when she was the nation's most-dominant blocker as a sophomore.
To any college athlete, three years is an eternity. Heck, it's 14 percent of Gil's entire life.
I'm just excited to be walking around again!
Since she last played, Gil has left behind her close-knit family, the unique inspiration of her younger brother back home in the Bay Area and the comfort of her home state to transfer here. After two, unfulfilling years at UCLA she became convinced McLaughlin would make her the best player she could possibly be, and that she would be competing for conference and national championships annually at Washington.
Per NCAA transfer rules, she sat out the Huskies' 2010 season that ended one match short of the Final Four. Then, as she prepared to make her UW debut last summer, persistent pain in her left knee became chronic. UW doctors found two, previously undetected issues: The top of her femur was farther outside her knee than normal, leaving her at risk of having her leg snap while playing; and she had developed a hole in her knee cartilage, causing all that pain.
Last Sept. 8, instead of making her Huskies home debut in what became a straight-set sweep of Seattle University, Gil had surgery. And not just any surgery: A UW team physician, Dr. Chris Wahl, broke Gil's femur, fused it with a bone part taken from her hip and re-set it to form a healthier bone angle for her knee.
She was in a knee brace for 3½ months. She wore crutches for 2½ months. She was in excruciating knee rehabilitation five to six hours a day, five or more days a week.
Forget blocking, setting or spiking. Gil's life boiled down to far more fundamental goals. Like walking. Or bathing.
"A lot of people that have this type of injury don't their mobility back or are able to play anything again," Gil said. "It really takes a full year to be fully normal and even have all your range of motion in your knee."
Now Gil is an arriving veteran and tallest blocker on a team featuring ultra-talented sophomore Krista Vansant and newcomers such as 2011 high school All-American Melanie Wade, one that is ranked 14th in the nation entering this season.
Being away from it for so long... it was extremely hard to get through. Just to know I can get back from this is very powerful.
"It feels really, really great to be back and fully part of the team," Gil said. "It's been a while.
"When I first transferred here I had volleyball. But being away from it for so long, not playing games, it was extremely hard to get through.
"Just to know I can get back from this is very powerful."
It took more than her candy-striping grandmother re-raising her inside her Seattle apartment last fall to get Gil through being essentially immobilized for half a year.
It took a new family -- McLaughlin, his players, his staff and Huskies fans. Gil is still amazed how they embraced this tall, dark-haired girl in a wheelchair that no one outside the program's inner circle really knew. They've held that embrace on her every day since the surgery 11 months ago.
"I mean, I haven't even played for U-Dub - still. And it's unbelievable the support I've had from fans, the team, the trainers, the staff here, all coming up to me at games and giving me hugs," she said.
"It's just amazing to me."
It also took phone calls back home to Milpitas, Calif., and sobs to her best friend: Her father, Randy.
"Every day," Gil says, chuckling now.
The owner of a company that buys and sells telephone systems in California, Randy, and Amanda's mother Michelle encouraged their only daughter through the darkest days of Amanda's darkest winter.
"If there was any person I would cry to it was definitely my dad," Amanda said. "I would be so down, and he would always say, `Look at how far you've come from last week. Last week you couldn't bend your knee to 45 degrees. And now you are near 60!'
"He made me see there were little goals to get me through each week, to not get discouraged. Just being up here without my family - I mean, I had my Husky family, which is so great - but not my dad, my mom, my brother, it was so hard."
Her brother is Randy Jr. He turns 13 next month.
He has autism. He has difficulty making eye contact and communicating, which makes team sports problematic for him. Amanda and her parents are helping him get into swimming and other, more individualized sports in which he can be coached on more of a one-on-one basis.
"Oh, my God, my brother is everything to me," Randy Jr.'s big sister gushed. "He's taught me so much, to appreciate my life just as it is. Just to see all the challenges that he has to get through, it makes me realize I have a normal life, even with this injury. I get to do what I love to do, play volleyball, and we don't know if he can play a team sport or even if he will be able to live on his own.
"I'm so excited for this season and him being able to see me play, him being there to cheer me on."
Team Amanda has two other males instrumental in her recovery, guys who also helped make this long, long-awaited UW debut possible.
Gil met E.J. Woods on the first day of summer school at UCLA in 2008. He's been there for his girlfriend ever since. Woods also left UCLA when Gil did, and they've been dating long distance for 2½ years now. He is beginning this football season playing at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M.
"He's been such a main supporter," she said. "He's definitely been an amazing boyfriend."
Back at UW, Gil got to know Mike Dillon far better than she would have chosen.
Dillon is the Huskies athletic trainer who manhandled Gil for months following her surgery. He yanked and cranked on a knee that was initially swollen to the size of a beach ball.
Yeah, that chafed Gil a tad.
"A week after my surgery I was in that training room and Mike was bending my knee. I was like, `How can you bend my knee when it is broken?'" Gil says, laughing over what to her is still absurd.
While her teammates practiced and traveled and played without her last fall, Gil worked with Dillon for those six hours each day, through her 21st birthday in November. Amanda celebrated that not by shutting down The Ave or Belltown, as some new 21-year olds might -- but by finally getting out of her knee brace that week.
"Yeah, `Happy Birthday to me,'" she joked. "I couldn't do anything.
"I honestly give so much credit to Mike. He would bend my knee, every day, to get that range of motion back. It was so hard, crying every day and screaming at him. He was my coach off the court."
It was so hard, crying every day and screaming at him. He was my coach off the court.
I asked if, during those searing sessions on the training table, she hated Dillon.
"When he was bending my knee, yes," she said, laughing again. "I was yelling, crying to him, Michael, please stop!'
"But after the fact, I am so grateful for all he did. He kept me going."
A NEW BEGINNING
McLaughlin estimates Gil is at 70-75 percent of full capability on the court. He is trying to get her to 90 percent by when the postseason begins in late November. Her experience and court savvy could pay huge dividends in the NCAA tournament.
"She is in a position to compete. But she is wounded, so we have to be careful with her," McLaughlin said.
Gil understands that.
"I'm definitely not 100 percent. But it hasn't been a full year. It's definitely getting back to being myself again."
Thing is, if Gil is good enough to play now, she will. McLaughlin's internationally renowned system of white, dry-erase boards at practices tracks every angle of every strike (http://www.gohuskies.com/sports/w-volley/spec-rel/101310aad.html) . It details each Husky's statistics - from each practice. The ones with the highest marks start the next match.
"In Jim's system, you have to earn your playing time for each game, no matter who you are or what you've been doing before," Gil said. "If I am the best hitter that week I will be playing that."
It's possible Gil's college volleyball career will not only span two Pac-12 schools but three U.S. presidents. The Huskies list Gil as a senior. But she's spent recent weeks gathering medical records, X-rays, rehabilitation charts - everything short of the spokes to that discarded wheelchair - to send to the NCAA. UW is sponsoring her petition for a sixth year of volleyball eligibility in 2013 through a medical-hardship season.
I'd say having your leg broken on purpose by a doctor, getting a hip bone shaved and needing Grandma to help you eat and bathe for months is a medical hardship, wouldn't you?
For now, Amanda's mother and father are packing for an imminent, joyous trip north to Seattle. They will be inside Alaska Airlines Arena for that Huskies' opener next Friday.
It may as well be the national championship and Olympic gold-medal matches rolled into one for the family and their resilient, rejuvenated daughter.
"I want to play. I want to be the best leader for this team," Amanda said, excitedly. "I want to help us get to the Pac-12 championship and to win a national championship."
To me, seems like she's already won.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.