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November 30, 2023

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Van De Walle guides US sitting volleyball

While thousands of Americans watched a highly touted US Soccer team falter in the World Cup this summer, another less heralded national team was busy making a name for themselves on an international stage.

And most people in the United States have no idea their sport even exists.

Ignored by domestic media, the 2006 Sitting Volleyball World Championship finished play in June with the US women’s team coming in fifth place and the men’s team taking ninth.

The sport has been in existence overseas for decades, but the U.S. program was just started in 2002. Designed for the physically disabled, sitting volleyball takes its name from the fact that all players are actually sitting on the ground rather than standing.

However, in countries like China and the Netherlands it is widely popular among able bodied athletes and commands as much attention as any other sport.

Denise Van De Walle, who pulls double duty as the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball assistant coach and BGSU women’s volleyball head coach, said she finds sitting volleyball to be much more challenging than standing volleyball.

“It’s a very difficult game to play because it is difficult to move on the floor, especially with both legs,” she said. “Missing a leg actually helps a little.”

The sport is played with most of the same rules as standing volleyball but the court is smaller and the net is lower. The only rules that change are serves can be blocked and all players must have at least one butt cheek on the floor when hitting or blocking.

“The sitting game is so much faster [than the standing game] because of the smaller court and lower net,” Van De Walle said. “When someone takes a heavy swing at the ball it’s in your face and chest in a second.”

She said she has even used the sport to help the BG volleyball team because of the emphasis on ball control and hand control.

But sitting volleyball is much more than a sport to many of its participants because it has helped many of them come to terms with their disability.

Brenda Maymon, a member of the US women’s team since 2003, said at first it was a negative experience for her because even though she lost a leg in a lawn mower accident in 1991, she didn’t let it stop her from competing in able bodied sports.

“After my first training camp I didn’t want to come back,” she said. “You grow up thinking you’re not handicapped but sitting volleyball makes you realize that you are. It was hard because I was so self-conscious.”

But after she got over the initial shock, Maymon said it has really helped her.

“Back in Indiana you don’t see many amputees, but here the girls are all the same. We’re just a bunch of sisters,” she said.

Kendra Lancaster, a member of the team since 2004, had a similar experience. She was born without a left arm but said sitting volleyball was the first adapted sport she played after playing standing volleyball, soccer and basketball while growing up.

“I kind of freaked out for a little bit,” Lancaster said of her first training camp, “Honestly, I didn’t like it very much. It’s hard to admit to ourselves that we are considered a disabled team because most of he girls have played able bodied sports their whole lives.”

But like Maymon, she said it was the camaraderie she experienced from being with the team that has kept her interested in the sport.

Both were on the team when it took bronze in the 2004 Athens Paralympics and they agree that they couldn’t have done it without Van De Walle.

“She gave us everything she had,” Maymon said. “We owe our medals in Athens to her.”

Lancaster said that besides all the volleyball knowledge Van De Walle brings to the table, she also keeps them upbeat with her positive attitude.

“She brings a great personality [to the team],” Lancaster said. “She’s real bubbly all the time and she’s just a nice person.”

But don’t be mistaken, they aren’t just happy to play the game. These young women have high expectations for themselves and were extremely disappointed with their finish in the world championships. Had they medaled they would be automatically qualified for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. Instead, they must now win the Triple World Championships which will be held in Denver, Colo. next March.

It is a task they are optimistic about since their toughest competition should come from an under-developed Brazil team that they beat in straight sets (27-25, 25-18, 25-12) in the recent world championships.

Van De Walle said she hopes to set up a training camp at the University within the month that would be open to the public.

After that, the team will be on hiatus as she turns her attention over to BGSU volleyball and the members of the team concentrate on school or work.

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