Heather Bown, Middle Hitter and American Olympic Silver Medalist 

Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

Extraordinary middle hitter volleyball players like three-time US Olympian and silver medalist Heather Bown have had to learn how to believe in themselves and in their capabilities.

Many times that meant learning how to deal with those people who thought that their dreams and goals were unreachable.

If you are a young player surrounded by people who don't believe in your goals or your plans for how you want to excel in this sport, then this is a great story for you to read. 

Learn how one of America's best volleyball players set goals and how she learned how to take steps in reaching those goals.

When I look back on all the things that influenced and helped me to become the person I am today, I never really realized at that point in time that they were good things. The roads traveled, the decisions, good or bad, made. 

So I guess it’s not so much a story but a journey. A journey that each of us takes, some in different ways than others. However all the same, we make it. 

It’s what we call life.

Middle blockers come from
all sorts of backgrounds.
-Volleyball Stories Heather 

Our lives are strange that way.

In the end it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you have or don’t have.

It comes down to the ideas and desires and dreams that you follow through with, and never let go of.

I believe that the strongest motivators in our lives are our dreams and our desires.

People will do almost anything to get what they want…they will work extra hard, they will give up being with friends, being with family.

Sacrifice many of the things that other people may take for granted. In the end they are that much stronger and happier for doing so.

As for myself, my journey with sports started when I was really young.  I have an older sister and naturally we had sibling rivalry growing up, so anything she participated in, I was close to follow.

We were born and raised in the same town our entire lives. Only moving once, from one side of town to the other…so in that respect I guess I was fortunate in not completely changing my surroundings.

However, even with that I still found it hard to make friends, I was a bit of a loner in school, never really fitting in. 

I was always the tallest in my class and for that as you can imagine didn’t fair well with the other kids…I was different, and at that age different wasn’t a good thing.  

I didn’t understand it then, but I understand it better now.

Volleyball players learn early that its okay to be different from everybody else.
-Volleyball Stories Heather 

My being different set me apart from the others, I had an ability within me that I had not yet learned about. 

Through my years in elementary and junior high I was usually found playing hand or tether ball on the blacktop. 

I don’t even know if they still play those games now…but my mother always said if there was a game with a ball involved I was playing it. Again, I didn’t see any connection.

When I got to high school, I once again followed in my sister’s footsteps as I did when I was growing up.

She was one year ahead of me in school and she had joined the swim team her freshman year, and I had witnessed how easy it was for her to make friends with her teammates and so I figured I would do the same.

It would keep me in my comfort zone.

US Olympian Heather Bown explains 
what its like to play for USA Volleyball
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

So there I was a freshman in high school on the swim team…trying to convert my social phobia into making a good teammate and friend for others.

It was hard at first, I was so used to not having many friends to be surrounded by so many people all the time was weird for me.

However as the year went by I opened up a little more and made a few good friends which also helped me in the transition from junior high to high school.

It was a whole different world. So I continued to swim until my junior year in high school when my life took an unexpected turn.

Players learn from other players who are better than they are. 
-Volleyball Stories Heather Brown

You see it's strange why certain people are put in your life…the old saying that everyone is here for a reason, yeah well I believe it now. 

I had become friends with a girl on the swim team that was also on the school volleyball team.

We had become almost connected at the hip, we did everything together. However when swim season was over she had her volleyball practices to go to, and once again I was left alone.

Volleyball players usually start setting goals for themselves in high school or before.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

High school is a scary place to be when you feel alone. 

It’s a time in our lives when we are transitioning and questioning everything about us. We seem to be more concerned with what the other kids think of us than what we think of ourselves.

We seem to lose sight of the important things. And care more about the superficial ideas and trends of the time. Maybe because I was a bit of a loner I sheltered myself too much, I guess you could call me a nerd if you want.

On the weekends I was at home, I rarely went out I never dated and boys scared the hell out of me. 

However not always, I mean I had friend from sports, and I could be seen as “one of the guys” but not as a girl they liked.

If I had the choice I would choose school over social events. I loved the hard classes like chemistry and physics. I think now it may have been more of an avoidance tactic than anything. If I was busy with sports and school the social scene couldn’t bother me. I had an excuse to not go out.

Watch as Middle Hitter Volleyball Player Heather Bown is honored during her senior year at the University of Hawaii. 

-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

My parents never seemed to notice. It’s funny how we can hide things that are right under our noses.

So anyhow, the end of my sophomore year in high school I figured I would try out for the JV volleyball team.

As you can guess, once again I was the tallest on the team, which in my opinion was the only reason I made the volleyball team.

I mean I was horrible; I couldn’t even pass a ball. I didn’t know the footwork for anything. All of the girls that were there had played club volleyball.

Middle blockers have to work to get better and they do.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

I mean I was 16 years old and I was just for the first time picking up a ball and playing with girls that had been playing volleyball for at least 3 years if not more.

I was ridiculously intimidated.

My self confidence, which was never high to begin with, fell through the floor.

However, I kept trying.

Despite any limitations or lack of confidence middle hitters 
keep on trying, they don't give up.
-Volleyball Stories Heather 

So my junior year I competed on the JV volleyball team and had fun, it was so much different from swimming.

I mean I could actually talk to other people during volleyball practice…swimming was way too difficult, my face always being in the water and all, you could understand.

Volleyball Stories Heather Bown talks about being courageous everyday!

The season flew by and I struggled a lot, but enjoyed myself enough to want to keep at it. However my love was still in swimming.

It wasn’t until I made the decision to join a volleyball club in my area that things really started to fall into place for my path in life. 

As many of you know with club volleyball you travel to different volleyball tournaments and many college volleyball coaches have the opportunity to see all different levels of players. 

From beginners to advanced and all of us in between. As you can guess I was in the beginner category.

Volleyball players find ways to get better at their sport during the offseason.
-Volleyball Stories Heather 

When I returned to high school volleyball the next year (my senior year) they had to put me on the varsity volleyball team because of my age. 

Now I was excited to be on the team and be able to contribute somehow. 

So I would go to volleyball practice everyday and give my best…even though I was still in the learning phase of the game.

However, I still say that now and it has been 12 years. Nonetheless I learn new things everyday, and I believe that the day I stop learning is the day I retire from the sport.

Anyhow, I honestly can not tell you what brought up the conference between myself and my volleyball coach one day, but we had a meeting and in that meeting I heard some of the harshest but at the same time motivating words I think I have ever received in my career.

Volleyball players turn criticism into motivation.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

Now when you are a young volleyball player still trying to figure out what you are doing on the volleyball court, you really would like to have some support from those that are your superiors, but on this day support was definitely not what I was going to get.

In the course of the conversation I was told “you will never be a Division One volleyball player”.

Now he was referring to Division One in High School. 

In other words, making me doubt myself and my reasons for being on the volleyball team. 

I don’t think I have to tell you that in about 0.1 seconds I started to cry, and cry, and cry. I couldn’t believe it. I mean you go through life with disappointments, and believe me I had had some good ones.

However, I wasn’t expecting that from him. So I had to deal with it. I never really understood until the day I started getting letters from schools that were interested in me to come play for them.

Now up to this point I had never even thought about going to college. After the harsh words spoken to me I made a pact with myself that I would do everything in my power to prove him wrong.

I would be a Division One middle hitter volleyball player, I would be worth something to the team. So with the letters came also requests to come see me play.

Competitive volleyball players make their own breaks because they work hard and train hard all the time.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

Well you can imagine this posed a bit of a problem, seeing as I never got to play on my high school volleyball team.

So a coach had contacted my volleyball coach to let him and I know he would be attending a game, and gave the exact date of the volleyball game he would be attending.

So that day comes and you would think that maybe my volleyball coach would allow me to play just a few minutes so that the college volleyball coach could see what I had to offer, but no.

Not one minute of the game. This coach had driven 3.5 hours to my school to see me play and I sat the entire time

I was devastated, totally lost on the concept that my volleyball coach could not allow me the chance to go to college and play. I thought it was all over. Maybe he was right maybe I couldn’t be a D1 volleyball player.

Even in warmups good volleyball players show they are serious about playing the game.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

But after the game in the parking lot the college volleyball coach said something to me that turned my life around.

He said to me that he didn’t have to see me play in the volleyball game, but that even in warm ups he could see that I was something special.

Then he handed me a phone number to call when I got home. It was the number to the Head Volleyball Coach of the University, a real D1 University. I was so nervous to make that call; I had no idea what to say. 

So I was off to play volleyball in college. My freshman year went as fast as lightening especially with all the transition in playing and learning, and all the new experiences.

Motivated volleyball players learn as much as they 
can about the game.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

I was again lost and the only thing I had that was the same was volleyball. So I buried myself in the volleyball game and my workouts and tried to learn as much as I could in the short time I had before season started.

I still felt so behind everyone else, so it was natural when I didn’t get recognized for things, I would just continue my preparation as if nothing happened, but in my heart I was dying for someone to say hey…"Great job Heather".

It wasn’t until the end of my freshman year when another bomb was dropped on my dreams, almost shattering them again.

I had gone into my end of year meeting with the volleyball coaches and we had a talk, within the course of the meeting I had mentioned that I wanted them to train me for the 2000 Olympic volleyball team.

Volleyball players set long term and short term goals for themselves.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

I wanted to go to the Olympics! The response I received from one of the volleyball coaches was “Don’t set your hopes too high”.

Don’t set your hopes too high? I was crushed. Maybe I had delivered the proposition in the wrong manner, but I was asking for help to become the best volleyball player I could be and I got shot down.

Volleyball Stories Heather Bown talks about Military Service and Sacrifice

So with a deflated heart I competed another season with the same college volleyball team, but just could not get myself to really feel alive. 

So after my sophomore year I transferred schools. 

Leaving my home state and going quite a bit further than I had ever been before for school and volleyball.

Middle hitter volleyball players look at the big picture and make decisions that put them on the path towards reaching their goals.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

When I arrived at my new home, I hated it. 

I regretted leaving what I had, and thought maybe I had made the biggest mistake of my life.

However, as time always does, it showed me that my taking the initiative and moving out of my comfort zone was something that I needed in order to help me grow. 

Volleyball players make the most
progress when they move outside of their comfort zone.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

So I was off and running with a new volleyball team and a new air about me. I felt free and alive.

After my junior season I was given the opportunity to try out with the USA national volleyball team. My new volleyball coach had arranged for me to be a part of a tryout.

I think I almost fainted when he told me, I was terrified. 

How was I supposed to be able to play volleyball with those girls?

They were all so experienced and, well… really, really good. I was… well…not those things.

Volleyball players work hard so they are
ready when their opportunity presents itself.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

So the day of the tryout came and I didn’t even know what my name was, I was so nervous.

I couldn’t believe that I was actually there, having the chance to be looked at by the USA national volleyball team coaches.

So I made the best of it and just did what I could. Hoping, and praying that it was enough. 

At the end of the day, I was fortunate enough to be selected to be part of a group that trained for the World University Games Volleyball Team in ’99.

At that point I thought the hard part was over, but I was way wrong. 

Top volleyball players learn to adapt to new rules, new situations and new environments.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

Even though in college I was somewhat successful, when I got to the national volleyball team it was a whole different ball game. 

Actually it wasn’t even the national team it was the WUG (World University Games) team. 

I was told I had to lose weight and I couldn’t eat certain foods, I had to drink nothing but water.

I mean it was horrible. I had never been flat out told I was overweight.

I had always just kind of accepted the fact that I was never going to be skinny like the other players, but it was finally ok with me. I was just comfortable in my skin and I was being told I was not the right image. 

I couldn’t do it. I began to play volleyball badly because I wasn’t happy.

My secret has always been that

I am happiest 

when I am playing volleyball 

because I feel free.

I was no longer free.

I was  encaged in an image

process. (sic)

That I didn’t know how to be.

-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

So needless to say that summer was the hardest on me psychologically.

I had to really get to know me for me and really love who I was in order to make it through.

I learned that there are a lot of people out there that believe they know what is best for everyone else, when the only person out there that can really answer that question for you is the one that looks you in the mirror every morning. No one else.

You may think things turned all happy and pink once I was on the national volleyball team for good.  This occurred in Feb of 2000.

I left school early, not finishing my degree, and moved to Colorado Springs full time to live and train. 

Although my confidence grew the more practice I had in both my personal life and professional, I had one more bump to pass over before I was in the clear.

It came in the summer of 2001.

I was told by one of my national team coaches that “I thought I was better than I really am on the volleyball court”.

Volleyball players learn how to believe in themselves.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

Now if you can tell me what middle hitter volleyball player in the world can succeed without believing in themselves…since in the past I had learned that I am the only one who can 100%, I would be open to learn.

Now this cut me like a knife. I was not expecting it from a volleyball coach of mine at this level.

So once again I had to dig deep and confront the ugly monster that was once again stirring.

All that I had worked so hard for was demolished in a split second. My self doubt was again in the forefront of my mind.

It seems as though no matter where you go or what you do in life there will always be obstacles, be it people or things that will cause you to stop and debate if you are really on the right path in life. 

It’s those moments when we really see what we are made of…

Volleyball players never give up.
-Volleyball Stories Heather 

I had three very defining points when I had to question myself and if it 

was really worth it. I could have easily listened to others and packed up 

and gone home…or never even tried in the first place, but I did.

Today I am writing to you from an apartment in Italy where I have been fortunate enough to have spent the last 7 years of my life playing professional volleyball.

I have traveled the world and been exposed to different cultures, people, and sights. I have grown up with the world as opposed to growing up in the world.

None of that would have been possible had I not believed first in myself and loved myself enough to venture away from what was comfortable and easy for me to do.

Middle hitter volleyball players challenge themselves.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

Challenging myself and pushing myself whether it was on the volleyball court, or in the classroom, or in life in general. 

Like I said before 'Life is funny that way… you never really know what you are going to be faced with and what will come of it.'

For many volleyball players the glass is always half full.
-Volleyball Stories Heather Bown

But just remember, even in the darkest moments of your life something good will come from it.

Just believe that and even if you mess up every once in a while it doesn’t always mean the end of the road; it just means you have to make your own path for a while and who knows what you might find.

Sometimes the best things in life are unexpected gifts. 

So I wish all of you a good journey and maybe our paths will cross sometime.

Aloha! Heather Bown

This story was written by Heather Bown exclusively for the Volleyball Voices project created and produced by April Chapple. 

No reproduction is allowed. All rights reserved. Volleyball Voices copyright 2019-20.

  1. Improve Your Volleyball Performance with Vegas VB Coach April Chapple
  2. Pro Volleyball Players Tell Inspirational Volleyball Stories
  3. Heather Bown, Middle Hitter and American Olympic Silver Medalist

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