This month marked the end of the Tokyo Olympics, as athletes from around the globe return home to reflect on their performance on the world’s biggest stage. But another group of athletes are only just beginning their time in Tokyo, with the Paralympic Games set to begin Aug. 24.
A sophomore at UNC, Emma Schieck is part of the next generation of the United States’ sitting volleyball program. Born with a brachial plexus injury that restricts movement in her left arm, Schieck played standing volleyball her whole life before trying sitting volleyball in 2017.
“She’s had this injury since birth, but never did we restrict her or limit her,” Emma’s mother, Beth Schieck, said. “There were physical limitations, but she always did whatever she wanted to do.”
Sitting volleyball is an alternative to standing volleyball, with a lower net, smaller court and players that are only allowed to move using their arms. While its rules are almost identical to standing volleyball, the play style and body movements are completely different, making the transition difficult for even the most athletic players.
After being approached by a representative from the Women’s Sitting National Team at a standing volleyball tournament in Atlanta, Schieck attended sitting camps in Virginia, Oklahoma and California before deciding to pursue sitting volleyball full time.
She impressed in these camps, eventually earning an invitation from the Women’s Sitting National Team coach to train with the team.
“I was kind of like, ‘Oh crap, how can I say no to this?’” Schieck said. “This is something people work their whole lives for. And I went, and I loved it. I absolutely fell in love with the sport.”
Schieck went from having never heard of sitting volleyball to playing with some of the country’s most experienced players — some of whom are old enough to be her mother.
But the decision to join the Women's Sitting National Team was not an easy one.
In high school, Schieck went from not making the volleyball team her first year and being the team's manager to eventually leading the squad. She'd stayed dedicated to standing volleyball, which led her to becoming an integral player — a role she'd have to give up if she chose sitting volleyball long term.
“I just think she learned that she's going to have to work harder than other people, sometimes, to get the same thing,” Megan Skouby, Schieck’s high school coach, said. “She always worked hard, and anything she puts her mind to that she decides she's going to want, she's going to do it.”
A July article published on the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee website said Schieck was representative of “the next generation of U.S. sitting volleyball.”
“When I read that article, that was honestly the first time that I heard it like that and it definitely made me smile,” Schieck said. “I have a lot of confidence in the future of this program at the rate we’re going.”
For now, though, Tokyo is the only thing on Schieck’s mind. This is her first time at the Paralympic Games, but she already knows she wants to stay with the sport for years to come.
“The career for a sitting volleyball player is longer — my oldest teammate is 44 years old,” Schieck said. “I look up to that squad and I look up to everything they were able to accomplish, but I also know that they are some of my best friends.”
These long-term goals extend past what happens on the court.
Schieck’s captain, Katie Holloway, was on the frontlines advocating for equal pay for Paralympians, reorienting how Schieck views the role of sport in society. The Tokyo Games mark the first time Paralympic medalists will be paid the same as Olympic medalists.
“I understand that at some point, I am going to have to turn in my jersey and stop playing,” Schieck said. “At that point, I want to be involved in bettering the Paralympic movement.”
For the rest of her time playing sitting volleyball, Schieck hopes to have a direct hand in helping Paralympic sports grow.
“I hate that I did not know about sitting volleyball until sitting volleyball found me,” she said. “I don't think that needs to be the case for future athletes.”
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