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Spring 2009 - Paralympian volleys

Destination Purdue > Spring 2009 - Paralympian volleys

Paralympian volleys for silver in Beijing

By Abby Lillpop

When imagining an Olympic silver medalist, you probably don't picture a 5-foot 7-inch volleyball star who plays the game sitting down. But you probably haven't seen Kendra Lancaster.

West Bank

Photo by Abby Lillpop

Kendra Lancaster, a junior preveterinary science major from Westfield, Ind., demonstrates her skills at the Purdue Recreational Sports Center. Lancaster was a member of the 2008 U.S. Paralympic sitting volleyball team.

Last summer, the junior preveterinary medicine major from Westfield, Ind., competed in her second Paralympic Games, an international competition for athletes with disabilities. She's a member of the 12-woman U.S. sitting volleyball team. Sitting volleyball players may have a variety of disabilities, but they all play sitting on the ground. Lancaster was born without a left arm, yet nothing has slowed her down from quickly making herself known as a standout volleyball player.

Lancaster said she never would have guessed that playing varsity volleyball at Westfield High School, just outside of Indianapolis, and playing for club teams around the Indianapolis area would ever lead to becoming an Olympic athlete.

"When the Olympics would come on, like every other little kid, I wanted to be an Olympic athlete, but that was pretty much the extent of it," she said. "I never thought this would happen. I'm so thankful this fell into my lap."

The Paralympic Games originated in 1948 in England as a sporting competition for wounded World War II veterans. Some 56 years later, in 2004, women's sitting volleyball was introduced, and Lancaster was on the inaugural team that won the bronze medal in Athens.

And in September, she added to her trophy case by earning a silver medal in Beijing. The team defeated Lithuania and Latvia and lost to China in the preliminary rounds, but earned a spot in the gold medal game with a five-set victory over the Netherlands in the semifinals. After a rematch with the host team, China, the U.S. settled for silver. "We never let ourselves get down after the loss to China in the prelims. We were determined to do well," Lancaster said.

The team that has taken Lancaster around the world is based in Colorado, but it was her club coach from Indianapolis who recommended Lancaster for the U.S. team. Lancaster traveled to Denver for tryouts and made the team as a 17-year-old high school student.

Sitting volleyball follows the same rules as standing volleyball with a few exceptions. Unlike standing volleyball, sitting volleyball allows players to block serves. And to accommodate a smaller playing area and shorter net (about 3.5 feet tall), players are required to keep some part of their upper bodies - from their hips to their shoulders - in contact with the floor at all times. Lancaster said the change from playing standing volleyball to playing sitting volleyball was a very different experience that tested her patience.

"That was very hard for me," she said. "I'm an arm amputee and having played standing volleyball in high school, I use my legs. When I couldn't, I felt like they just got in my way. It made things a lot harder. I’m not a patient person, and I wanted to get it right away."

Mike Hulett, head coach of the women’s sitting volleyball team, said that what sets Lancaster apart from the rest of her team is that she started as a conventional volleyball player. "She had played in high school and in junior club, so she was very experienced in the game. Adapting to playing sitting volleyball was an easy transition for her."

Lancaster's enthusiasm for her team and teammates made her a must-have on the court, said Hulett. "The enthusiastic celebration she has after each of the points scored played a significant role in keeping everyone upbeat. She really brings the team together," Hulett said.

Lancaster said she thinks the whole experience has made her grow as a person. She had the opportunity to travel to four countries, play against teams from countless other countries and meet former President George W. Bush. "Not many people can say they have traveled the world like I can. I have had a lot of opportunities," Lancaster said. "I have gone everywhere and met so many people. I’m very thankful."

Lancaster laughed when she talked about returning home from after last summer’s Paralympic Games in Beijing. "I felt like I was a nobody again. I had to come back and pay rent again. Cook my own food. Go to classes. I was a typical college student again."

That was quite a difference from Beijing, where she and her teammates were treated spectacularly, she said. The athletes all lived together, ate together, and played together. Lancaster said the whole experience was like a dream to her. "This is the kind of life you can tell your kids about," she said. "There are days when I think about it and I just want to go back because it all feels like a dream. I would have never guessed this would happen to me."