By Jeanne Hess
July 2, 2019
When I published Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games in 2012, the idea of ever competing again in volleyball was light years away; given the fact that I needed double knee-replacement surgery to relieve the pain I’d been experiencing for years. So as I write today in 2019, having just finished competition in the National Senior Games, I feel like it’s not only a medical miracle, but a Sportual shift in my mind and heart.
You may have heard about “Hurricane” Julia Hawkins, one of the most publicized stories of these Senior Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At 103 years old, she won both the 50 and 100-meter dashes in track and field competition. When asked by the New York Times for closing thoughts during her interview, she offered wisdom as only a centenarian could: “Look for the magic moments.”
The magic moment for me and my teammates in the 60+ volleyball competition was not in our players, but in our coach. Forty-three years ago, I met the man who would shape my life and very existence through sport – my coach at the University of Michigan, Sandy Vong. He took a chance on a raw athlete who could run and jump, believing he could teach me to play the game. My years as a Wolverine in that first decade following Title IX were somewhat uneventful, but upon reflection, Sandy’s Sportual genius was ever-present. Some call him Yoda; those who elected him into the AVCA Hall of Fame understood his impact on the game. He’s coached every level from middle school to traveling with the USA National Team, and to Sandy, each level was equally as important.
But here’s the cool thing. When presented with the opportunity to play in the 2019 Senior Games in Albuquerque, I hesitated, knowing that it intersected with the final days of my 35-year career as volleyball coach and professor at Kalamazoo College. My teammates then said, “Sandy will be our coach.” Well, you had me at Sandy. You see, this conversation happened at the celebration of Sandy’s 90th birthday. I looked for, and found that magic moment…saying yes to nationals, with the timing being perfect. I participated in commencement at Kalamazoo College on June 16, flew to Albuquerque on the 17th, practiced that evening, and competed with my team June 18, 19, and 20. I was not the only Sandy Vong alum on our team – two of my teammates had played for him at Ann Arbor Huron High School. Therefore, three of us knew and understood the magic moments that had brought us to this Sportual competition as part of our team, Net Assets.
It is rare when an opportunity to complete a full circle of a career comes along. To go from player to coach, back to player for that very same coach who allowed its beginning, to me, is that magic moment. In Sportuality, I told the story of Sandy calling me “en-su-si-astic,” which was how he, in his Mandarin accent, said “enthusiastic.” It wasn’t until years later when I learned that the origin of the word was “God-Within” that the magic began to unfold so much that I included the word in Sportuality as integral to finding joy in our games.
Sandy did not agree to coach our Net Assets team until we agreed to buy in to his “5-less” philosophy: Ego-less, Self-less, Blame-less, Fear-less, and Relent-less. I had to remind him that I had tried to teach that very same philosophy to teams since graduating in 1980.
I was reminded of the speech from James Earl Jones as Terrance Mann in Field of Dreams: “And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.” The entire time in Albuquerque, I was brushing the memories of 47 years of playing and coaching away from my face, as I heard the same words from my coach at 60 years of age that I did as an 18-year-old novice. It was the most miraculous, Sportual, full circle that anyone could have ever imagined! Thank you, Albuquerque, thank you Net Assets, and thank you, Sandy Vong!