​Former TLU Athlete Training for Spot at 2020 Summer Paralympics

January 31, 2018

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In February 2016, Jill Williams’ world was forever changed. After she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma—a form of bone cancer most commonly found in children and young adults—the then freshman volleyball player withdrew from school to receive several rounds of chemotherapy before undergoing surgery for a rotationplasty.

Now, almost two years later and cancer-free, volleyball is still very much a part of her life. However, instead of representing the Bulldogs, she’s planning to represent Team USA during the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo.

Williams is currently training with the US Women’s Paralympic Sitting Volleyball Team at the University of Central Oklahoma, hoping to secure a spot on the roster. According to teamusa.org, Paralympic volleyball follows the same rules as its non-disabled counterpart with a few modifications to accommodate various disabilities, including a lowered net height of 3.5 feet high and a smaller court size of 10 x 6 meters.

With her sights not only set on Tokyo 2020 but the 2018 Sitting Volleyball World Tournament in the Netherlands, Williams admits she had never heard of the sport until her trainer mentioned it.

“I was actually into skeet shooting and sporting clay and trap team with my family and friends,” she said. “It wasn’t until my surgeon and trainer told me about it that I had ever heard of sitting volleyball. They also asked if I’d tried Paralympic sports. I looked up sitting volleyball and saw that Team USA player Lora Webster also had a rotationplasty. So, I decided to go for it. Although it's not guaranteed that I'll make the team, training with them does increase me chances.”

She messaged Webster on Facebook and heard back three weeks later—right after the US Women’s Paralympic Volleyball Team won gold in Rio for the first time ever. She sent in videos of herself practicing and the rest all fell into place after that.

“My first camp experience was at the US Open Volleyball tournament and they put me on the court with people who’ve been playing for years,” Williams said. “Sitting volleyball is so much more intense than standing volleyball. I was thrown in there on a team with national players and it was very nerve-racking. It was sink or swim and I swam.”

Ranging in age from 21 to 42, her teammates all have their own story. Some were born without hands or with a fibular hemophilia—a condition where feet don’t fully develop and are typically amputated at birth. Others have been in car accidents and lost limbs. Despite this, Williams said they are some of the most talented players she’s ever seen.

“Being on the court with these athletes is completely amazing and different,” she said. “No one is disabled. No one is different. We look at our situation as a way of life and not a struggle. Everyone’s situation is unique and this opportunity wasn’t handed to us. We worked for it and it drove us to be the best.”

Even when she broke her leg in December 2017, Williams didn’t give up. Six weeks in a cast was just another thing to overcome. Now living in residence housing in Oklahoma with more national players, Williams practices three hours each day to prepare for the upcoming US Opens. Then, it’s hopefully on to the Netherlands for World Championships in July 2018.

“I had planned to study abroad in England through TLU’s Harlaxton program, but cancer had other plans for me,” she said. “This is my chance to travel and my parents will be in the Netherlands cheering me on.”

All of those experiences will lead Williams to the highest level of competition: the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo.

“It’s every athletes dream,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it will feel like and I’m very optimistic I’ll be there. I was excited to play DIII college volleyball so I can’t even imagine. I’m still starstruck every day when I’m on the court with these players. I hope if I’m there I’ll inspire others just like those who have inspired me. I want to make a difference about being different.”

As if training for the Paralympics wasn’t enough on her plate, Williams’ and her mom continue to oversee their Live n Leap Foundation—an organization dedicated to making dreams come true for young adults age18-29 who face life threatening injuries or illness. Williams envisions giving recipients shopping sprees, trips, or even gift cards to decorate their dorm.

Since the first fundraiser in August 2017, they have raised $38,000 of their $50,000 goal. Their next event is Saturday, May 12 at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi. Live n Leap has also started a chapter at TLU.

“When you’re diagnosed at this age you’re kind of stuck in a confusing place,” Williams said. “I wanted to start something that was all about them and show them this can be a time to reflect and to build. It means everything to me to be able to do this.” 

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