The long, painful recovery of UW volleyball player Amanda Gil
Doctors had to break transfer 6-foot-6 Amanda Gil's femur, realign it and fuse it earlier this month. Now the Washington volleyball player's excruciating rehab is filled with tears and sweat.
Special to The Seattle Times
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A little girl clutched a pen and a program. Eyes down, she took half-steps toward her target: a 6-foot-6 volleyball star in an oversized wheelchair, the athlete's swollen left leg extended like a battering ram.
Finally, shyly, the girl lifted her eyes to ask Amanda Gil for an autograph.
For Gil, a Washington middle blocker, the moment was surreal. In little more than 48 hours, she had gone from crying in pain to stifling a tear of joy. As her grandmother had just reassured her, she'd already had her worst day ever. Each day forward would be easier.
Amanda Gil understands mental anguish. She is a player who can't play, an athlete who waited impatiently for a return to the spotlight, only to find the stage door bolted. By transferring to Washington after a stellar sophomore season as the nation's best blocker at UCLA, she knew she'd have to sit out one season to comply with Pac-12 transfer rules. But she never imagined sitting out again, forced to watch her beloved teammates from a wheelchair.
After the 2010 Huskies fell one match short of a return to the Final Four, Gil hit the weight room and practice court with gusto. Throughout the spring and summer, she rehearsed coach Jim McLaughlin's precise blocking system. As one of the tallest and strongest players in the Pac-12, she was ready to anchor what promised to be a powerful front line.
As summer wore on, however, a chronic ache in her left knee grew worse. Ice, elevation, compression and rest offered only fleeting relief.
"I have somewhat wide hips," says Gil, "so the angle from my left hip to my left knee grinds my leg bone against the knee's cartilage. It got to the point where it actually wore a hole in the cartilage."
Just days before the first preseason practice, she got the news: the hole would have to be repaired, and she'd have to miss her second season in a row.
"I couldn't believe it was happening," Gil remembers. "It was devastating."
Her knee could only be repaired with donated cartilage. She was told that several UW football players had waited months for a perfect donor match, often from a cadaver or accident survivor.
"The best match for me might have been from another woman. But because I'm 6 foot 6, they decided to look for male donors, too."
On Sept. 1, she got the word: a donor had been located. But rather than risk the new cartilage wearing out. too, doctors gave her toe-curling news: during surgery, they wanted to break her femur, realign the bone, and fuse it with a slice taken from her hip.
"Oh, boy," says Gil. "I did not want to think about someone breaking my leg, even if it was by a doctor during surgery."
The operation began at sunrise on Sept. 8, and lasted four hours. That night, teammates dedicated their home match against Seattle University to their wounded friend. Gil lay in her hospital bed, within sight of Edmundson Pavilion, her leg swollen like a balloon and her pain dulled with medication.
Amanda Gil holds no grudges against UCLA. As a sophomore, she was a second-team All-American, leading the Pac-10 in blocks. But a week before Andy Banachowski — the Hall of Fame coach who recruited her — announced his retirement after 43 years, Gil withdrew from school. She knew that players around the league often talked about how much McLaughlin's players loved his system. A steady stream of UW grads were playing professionally overseas and earning spots on the U.S. National Team.
"Washington had everything I was looking for. At other schools, transfers and freshman are not always embraced. Here, they pulled me into their inner circle from the very first day."
Just one week after her surgery, Gil had an appointment with team trainer Mike Dillon. He told her it was time to start bending her knee.
"I couldn't believe it," Gil said. "The leg was swollen. I couldn't wrap my mind around the idea that I was supposed to actually move it."
Surrounded by football players getting their ankles taped, Dillon started to bend Gil's knee. She gasped. Then she yelped. She wanted to scream.
"It was excruciating," she said. "I wasn't expecting it. I started to cry. The thought of stretching those muscles was unreal. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do."
That day, the leg bent about 30 degrees. The next day, it was 50. Then 56. Then 60. The goal is 90 degrees by the end of October.
"They tell me that the faster I can get back my range of motion, the faster the knee will fully recover. It will take my femur about six weeks to heal, but we can work on the muscles and tendons right away."
Gil won't be able to travel with the team this season. Classes start Wednesday. Her mom and grandma have come up from California to help with chores and offer encouragement. They'll even drive her to class, where she'll get around with crutches.
Her teammates have been there for her, too. Gil sat in the wheelchair section during a dispiriting loss to USC on Sept. 16. One night later, the Huskies hosted UCLA. UW players again dedicated the match to Gil.
The Huskies swept the Bruins. After the match, Gil was wheeled into the locker room, where she was given the honor of putting a UCLA head on a doll, a tradition after Washington victories. Her teammates howled their approval.
"It's amazing. This has been such a hard time in my life. Really hard," Gil said. "But everyone at UW has been so supportive, so caring. That's what I like about Washington. They care about you like you are family."
As her mother wheeled her back out of the locker room, Gil saw the usual postmatch scene: family, friends, kids seeking autographs. Quietly, the little girl with the pen and program approached her wheelchair. Gil smiled, signed her name, and handed back the program. The girl got up on her tiptoes and gave Gil a hug.
"I'm so sorry," she said. "Are you OK?"
Gil felt the tears welling. "Yes, I am. Yes, I am."
Information in this article, originally published Sept. 27, 2011, was corrected Sept. 28, 2011. A previous version of this story said that University of Washington volleyball player Amanda Gil began to look for another school after her coach at UCLA announced his retirement. In fact, she withdrew from UCLA a week before the coach's announcement. A photo caption also incorrectly identified Gil as an athletic trainer.
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