Fulfilling a dream in Athens

Jason Dixon and Jason Dixon

There are some moments almost unworthy of mere words, those which must be fully experienced and felt to be properly appreciated. Denise Van De Walle has been coaching volleyball for more than two years, 22 at Bowling Green State University, before her defining moment finally materialized when she helped lead the USA Women’s National Sitting Volleyball Team to a bronze medal at last month’s Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. The USA finished behind gold medalist China and silver medalist Netherlands in the six-team tournament. “The trip was awesome,” Van De Walle said. “It was one of the best experiences in my coaching career. It was just like being at the Olympics, except the athletes had some type of disability. “But they still were the best in their event and they had to have qualified to have gotten there,” she added. “So I was looking at world class athletes in every sport. It surpassed my expectations.” Participating in its first ever Paralympics, the sitting team traveled to Athens after being together for 18 months while some teams had “four to eight years of experience playing with one another,” Van De Walle said. “We also had the least experienced team in the tournament with six players under 23 years old and we were the most disabled,” she added. However, the symbolism in the sitting team’s triumphant path was unmistakable, according to Van De Walle. “We were picked to finish last in the tournament, because we didn’t win a set against the three teams we played back in May,” she said. “I think the tournament went the way it should have with the three best teams winning a medal.” Van De Walle said she started crying during the ceremony while taking pictures, despite the coaches not being awarded a medal. “I was crying because I felt I had just seen a team go from being absolutely non-volleyball oriented to the third best team in the world in 18 months,” she said. “You just see all the hard work, dedication and perseverance come together right when you need it to and I saw that right then as they were receiving their medals. “I saw in my mind our first training camp back in February 2003 when we were horrible to what I saw … when we just beat Slovenia for the bronze medal,” Van De Walle said. “I saw a championship team on the floor. We had improved that much in such a short period of time and it was a moment I will cherish forever.” Van De Walle’s trail toward becoming the first woman to coach a volleyball team at the Paralympics began back in South Bend, Ind., where she started playing the game in sixth grade. She eventually went on to Ball State University, walking-on to the volleyball team as a freshman. Upon graduating from BSU, Van De Walle served as high school head coach before returning to her alma mater as an assistant coach in 1982. “I went back to Ball State thinking I would get the job in ’82, because the coached I played for was going to retire,” she said. “So I applied for the job and I didn’t get it, because they said they weren’t prepared to hire me full-time. So I was with nothing and that’s when Bowling Green called me up and recruited me to BG.” In 1989, six years into her stint as head coach at BGSU, Ball State came calling. “I was offered the job and I chose to stay here at BG, because I had six seniors returning to the team in 1989,” Van De Walle said. “I was so sure in the fall of ’89 that we were going to snap Western Michigan’s 98-consecutive MAC (Mid-American Conference) win streak and I turned it down for the opportunity to win the MAC Championship for the first time here and it happened.” She went on to the guide the Falcons to four more titles, while capturing 389 victories – more than any coach in conference history. Though Van De Walle said she hasn’t been motivated by the success. “I am a Christian, who happens to coach volleyball here at Bowling Green that loves my job, my players and the people that I work with,” she said. “My Christian faith is the most important thing to me, because that’s what gets me through 22 years of the ups and downs of coaching volleyball.” Van De Walle said she wants to remain the head coach at BGSU until she plans to retire. “The chance to come in and work with the players everyday is the most fulfilling part about coaching volleyball and the fact that I get to build relationships with the players,” Van De Walle added. “I really do enjoy working with people and that’s part of the reason why the Athens experience was so rewarding to me, because it was my first time working with disabled athletes … It was a dream fulfilled.” Senior Melissa Mohr said Van De Walle’s accomplishments show how dedicated she is. “She has a lot of knowledge about the game and a lot of respect from the coaches and players,” she said. “She’s had a huge impact on all of us and she has a winning tradition here at BG.”