Bailey Darnall has an unbridled passion for volleyball.
Since she was six-years old, Darnall has been playing volleyball, developing her skills, dreaming of playing at the NCAA Division I level and maybe, just maybe, the Olympics. And then there would be a coaching career to follow.
Volleyball became a big piece of Darnall’s life, her escape valve. When times got tough and she started to get overwhelmed by life, Darnall could always find relief in volleyball.
Darnall had her life all mapped out, and it all centered around volleyball.
But then her body betrayed her. In part because of all the stress she put on her body with the rigorous training and playing over the course of 14 years, Darnall’s body began to break down.
And then, just like that, almost in the blink of an eye, it was all over. At the age of 20, the Burlington High School and Indian Hills graduate found herself looking at her playing days in the rearview mirror, a long, hard road of surgeries ahead after being diagnosed with 20 degrees of hip displasia.
When she was supposed to be heading to the University of Tennessee-Martin to realize her dream of playing NCAA Division I volleyball, Darnall instead was back home, learning how to walk all over again.
The last two years have been a reawakening for Darnall. She had to go back to square one and learn to do things usually reserved for two-year olds.
Yet as she awakens on Christmas morning, Darnall already has unwrapped her best gift, a second chance at life, with volleyball playing a much smaller role.
Darnall, while far from being out of the woods, has plenty to be thankful for this Christmas.
“After everything that happened. we went to plan B and decided to keep on pushing through,” Darnall said.
Darnall was an all-conference and all-state middle hitter for BHS, earning honorable mention in Class 5A after averaging 4.77 kills per set. Darnall’s future was all set. She headed to Indian Hills in Ottumwa to play volleyball at the junior-college level, then would transfer to an NCAA Division I school to finish up.
Darnall knew there was something seriously wrong during her sophomore year at Indian Hills, but she didn’t want to let her teammates down and she wasn’t willing to give up on her dream. So she pushed on through the pain and played all the way through regionals.
“We took my heating pad and did everything we could. We got to regionals and I knew it could possibly be my last weekend of junior college volleyball. The not important games I didn’t play. The important games, when we started to play Iowa Western, I got on the floor. My leg looked like a noodle, literally. It was flopping back and forth. I remember a ball went off of one of my teammates’ hands and I turned around for it and I dove for it. My trainer stood up off the bench and my Mom stood up in the stands and they both just looked at me because I wasn’t thinking about my hip, but I couldn’t get back up off the floor. I got back up and played the rest of the game and got carried off the court,” Darnall said. “We had to turn around and play Iowa Western again the next day because it’s double elimination. I got back out on the court the next day and I knew if I didn’t play, I was going to regret it wholeheartedly. I left every last ounce of me out there. It still gets to me talking about it. It’s hard to think that was actually my last match. It’s almost a blur in my mind. I stood there after the game and I cried because I knew this could possibly be the end of my career. But at that time I didn’t believe it because I’ve had surgery before. I’ve broken bones in my arm. I’ve broken bones in my wrist. I’ve broken bones in my forearm and I’ve been fine. I had to fall into that little 10 percent category and be that one special person, of course.”
The next two years are a blur for Darnall as her dream soon became a nightmare. There were trips to Chicago to visit specialists. Then came the news she dreaded most — her volleyball playing days were over.
“I sat down with my doctor and we had a really long appointment. He said, ‘If it was me or my daughter, I would say you’re done.’ Those words were not something I wanted to hear, but something I knew I needed to hear,” Darnall said. “I don’t really remember some of it. There is a good month, month and a half where it’s all phased out of my life. It’s all a big blur. I know the highlight points because there are pictures. I know there were a few days when I had a lot of pain, but that was very well managed through Tylenol. They kept that on the easy because of how intensive it was. My Mom does not like any kind of narcotic drugs or anything like that. I didn’t take those. I did my epidural, then a muscle relaxer and a dose of Tylenol.”
That was a crushing blow for Darnall as her world began to spin out of control. She was headed to a future that suddenly was an unknown.
“That was heartbreaking because that’s what I knew. That’s what I did. That’s what my passion was. It was definitely a punch in the gut to hear. There are days when I will sit down and watch volleyball and it takes me back to my playing days and I can’t watch it anymore. Some people say it just something so tiny. You just need to put your big girl pants on and move on. really in my eyes it’s nothing tiny. It’s affected my entire life, actually. It’s hard,” Darnall said. “Volleyball had always been my escape. I could always go to the gym and be in volleyball and not have to think about anything but volleyball. That was my release.”
It was a humbling experience, to say the least. And there was plenty of pain, both physical and emotional.
With her mother, Tammy, as well as her aunt, uncle and cousin by her side, Darnall underwent her first hip surgery.
“They actually broke my pelvis bone in three places so they took my hip socket out of me completely and then put it back in me,” Darnall said.
And then began the long, hard climb back as she suddenly found herself as a 20-year old trapped in a 70-year old body doing things she had first done when she was a two-year old.
“They took me to try to go do the stairs,” Darnall said. “I got up the stairs OK because someone was holding my leg. Then they were trying to train me to go down the stairs. The stairs were about and inch to two inches deep. I was starting to come down them and I couldn’t get my leg to move whatsoever. It frustrated me because I knew I could do it, but I couldn’t do it. I was trying my hardest, I just couldn’t get it to go. So someone would have to go down the steps behind me and kick my leg to make sure my foot went down the step rather than hanging up on the step. That was really hard for me to swallow. I actually walked out of therapy that day and went back to my room because I was so frustrated that I couldn’t do it. That was hard two swallow at the age of 19”
There was a lot of pain, plenty of humbling moments and some downright embarrassing incidents which reduced Darnall to tears at times. At times she felt helpless and hopeless.
“I was in a wheelchair. I was on crutches. I was on those little fun scooters at the stores. People actually looked at me like I wasn’t hurt because you couldn’t see my hip. You couldn’t see the bandage. I looked like a perfectly normal teenager because I was still trying to have fun at the time, so I had to do something. I was laughing when I was rolling around on the scooters,” Darnall said. “It was definitely a big learning curve. I think the hardest part was you might not see the injury, but the person still has it. A lot of people looked in disbelief when I was either using a handicap sticker at the store because I was 19. It looked like I was faking it on my crutches because I could kind of move my leg and I was actually supposed to try to move it. But I could only put 10 pounds of weight at it at the time. People looked almost disgusted when you park in a handicap spot and you’re 19 and you look normal.”
Darnall has had to learn to rely on family, friends and faith to get her through the last two years.
“My Mom took care of me. She kept pushing me very hard through surgery. She was my driving force. There were days I just wanted to sit inside and not do anything and she was like, ‘We’re going out and do something. I don’t care if it’s just walking down the road.’ She would push me in my wheelchair. We have a joke. One night she actually pushed me off the sidewalk. My doctor, Dr. Daft, and his wife drove by and saw us. They were like, ‘Oh, look at this young lady pushing her mother in a wheelchair.’ Well, it was my Mom pushing me in a wheelchair, so they thought that was pretty good,” Darnall said. “During my stay here at the hospital, my grandpa would go out there every day and walk the hospital, so they would take me with him. Grandma would be like, ‘OK, go crutch along with grandpa now.’ There would be days I couldn’t even crutch along with him, so she would push me along in a wheelchair while Mom went back to work.”
Darnall recently started a full-time job at Quality Plus Feeds in St. Paul. And she is back coaching volleyball with a 15U team in the Grayhound Volleyball Club. It is her own special therapy, being back on the court around the game she loves so much.
“I decided I was going to give back to the sport that gave me so much, so I started coaching,” Darnall said. “I volunteer coached at the high school for a season or season and a half, until I had to get more hip surgery done, which was my screw removal. I’ve had my own traveling club team since my first year home. Right after surgery I took my own traveling club team and had those girls for two years. Now I am actually co-coaching with Coach Lindsey Johnson. We’re doing our own team together. That’s really nice since I just started working my full-time job. Life is good right now.”