Mountain View (Orem, Utah)
senior Rachel Steele
, volleyball was "everything."
Sixteen months ago Steele's goal was to help lead her team, Club Utah 16 Black, to the USA Volleyball Girls' Junior National Championship. Two weeks before the tournament started, she set a new goal for herself: To beat cancer.
One minute the Mountain View High sophomore was on top of the amateur volleyball world, the next thing she knew, she was prepping for chemotherapy.
"I remember Rachel talking to the doctors, trying to convince them that they should let her play in Nationals and then she could come back and start chemo," recalled Club Utah 16 Black head coach Katie Peterson. "It is crazy how a life can change in an instant."
Steele's life was perfect until June 2010, when she started experiencing what she describes were "major headaches and stiff neck pain." At first doctors were convinced it was meningitis, but after several additional tests and a consultation with a specialist, the news every parent never wants to hear was delivered to Steele's parents, Frost and Marie Steele.
"Why, why, why, is what first went through my mind," her mother remembered about the moment when she found out her third child of four, who was 16 at the time, had cancer. "Her battle with cancer is definitely the most stressful thing we've faced as a family."
Steele, now 18 and in remission, will never forget the moment her parents broke the news to her as she lay in her hospital bed: "I saw my parents walking toward me and my mom was crying. I literally thought, ‘Oh crap.' I wasn't scared to die, but scared of what was going to happen to my life. No more school, no more friends, no more volleyball."
Steele broke the news to Peterson the next day.
"I remember the first practice back after the news of Rachel," Peterson reminisced. "Nationals, practice and volleyball just didn't seem so important anymore. Every girl grew up a little more that day."
Steele's year-long battle against acute-myeloid leukemia (AML) included five rounds of chemotherapy — each requiring a month-long stay in the hospital, where her family was constantly by her side and teammates and coaches visited frequently — before she was in remission and healthy enough to receive a bone marrow transplant last November. She returned home from the hospital just before the holidays, but soon realized she had a long way to go in the recovery process.
"I got used to feeling terrible all the time, and weak," Steele said. "And not just physically. The emotional battle of cancer is huge, and there's no medicine for that. I still live with the possibility of [the cancer] coming back and I have to worry that all my hard work might very well be ripped away from me again."
Rachel's hard work to get back on the volleyball court paid off this past summer when she flew to Atlanta to play with her Club Utah 17 Black team in the national tournament – the same one she didn't get to attend the year before, in person that is. Steele's teammates made sure she felt included, communicating with her via Skype and wearing orange jerseys and "Steele Strong" bracelets in her honor.
"I wouldn't have taken a higher finish [in place of] how these girls worked on making sure one girl felt the love back home," Peterson said of the 2010 tournament experience. "It was awesome."
The team posted an 8-3 record at the 2011 championships, good for ninth place out of 43 teams. And while not winning the national title was certainly disappointing to Steele, as is her high school team's current 6-13 record, she now just puts it all in perspective.
"Of course it is more fun to win and I get mad when we lose," admitted Steele, who was recently named the MaxPreps/AVCA Utah player of the week
and currently has 181 kills and 82 digs. "But I can't complain about my progress. The fact that my body has been able to keep up and improve is a miracle."
Mountain View head coach Andy Young describes the 6-foot-1 outside hitter as hard-working, focused, competitive and determined, yet funny and laid back. He also says she has taught him, her teammates and the entire Mountain View community a very important lesson.
"When you see someone at the top of their volleyball game go through the struggles she has faced, it makes it easier to enjoy the journey, the little joys of life," Young said. "Now that Rachel is back we see that with hard work and determination anything can be overcome."
With her comeback now complete, Steele says she has a totally different outlook on the sport compared to 16 months ago.
"I still love the game, perhaps even more than I did before," Steele admitted. "But getting sick has helped me realize that volleyball isn't everything. I am extremely blessed to even be alive. Getting to play volleyball again is just icing on the cake."
Steele hopes to have her cake and eat it too next year in college. Prior to her diagnosis, she was being recruited by several colleges. Steele is more determined than ever to play at the next level, not just for her own sake, but to help inspire others facing similar situations.
"I want so badly to show everyone that I can go through a setback as big as cancer and still play in college," she said with pride. Jon Buzby is a sports columnist for the Newark (Del.) Post, a freelance writer, and on the broadcast team for the 1290AM The Ticket High School Football and Basketball Games of the Week. You can reach him at email@example.com.