Note: This story originally appeared in the 8/31 Cal football game program.
By Jonathan Okanes
During a team dinner before the start of training camp earlier this month, senior outside hitter Adrienne Gehan proposed a toast to August.
Or, more to the point, that teammate Michelle Neumayr had made it to August in one piece.
This marked the first year since 2010 that the Bears’ one-time prized recruit hadn’t suffered a torn ACL in the month of July. Neumayr, after two years of frustration, rehabilitation and transition, is finally on the court for Cal in 2013.
“We don’t like July,” Neumayr said.
Neumayr, an outside hitter, was PrepVolleyball.com’s No. 27 Senior Ace coming out of Burlingame High School. But two days before she was scheduled to begin summer classes at Cal before the 2011 season, she tore her ACL for the first time playing for her club team at the Junior Olympics in Atlanta.
She recovered in time to go through spring workouts in a limited role last year, but the knee gave out again during open gym workouts prior to the start of training camp. On the day before camp was to begin, Neumayr received the results of the MRI that told her she had once again injured the ACL and would have to sit out another season.
“Obviously, it was pretty devastating to hear about it the second time,” Neumayr said. “That was a pretty rough day.”
On the night she found out about the second ACL, Neumayr went home to spend the night with her family in Burlingame. When she returned to her Berkeley apartment the next day, she found her room cleaned and decorated and had cards, gifts, cookies and brownies waiting for her, all courtesy of her teammates.
“When she told everyone she had torn her ACL again, we all had a knot in our stomach,” Gehan said. “I think she was the only one not crying. Everyone wanted to do what they could to make her feel a tad bit better.”
Neumayr overcame the shock of her second ACL injury quickly and got right back on a rehabilitation path. Doctors told her the recovery would take longer this time since it was the second instance of her tearing the ligament, so Neumayr put volleyball out of her mind. Instead, she came to strength and conditioning coach Hank Behrens and athletic trainer Elaine Garcia and asked them to put her on a fitness plan that would get her in superior physical condition when she did return to the court.
The results? Neumayr lost a whopping 40 pounds and is as strong and fit as she has ever been as an athlete.
“She completely changed her lifestyle to make sure she would come back and be ready to go,” Behrens said. “We had to tell her to slow down. We almost had to talk her into taking days off. From a physical standpoint, she’s as good as she’s ever been.”
Although she couldn’t play, Neumayr still immersed herself in the team’s culture during the last two years, earning the admiration of everyone around the program with her dedication and spirit. As a result, she was selected as one of the team’s captains for the 2013 season despite the fact she has yet to play a single point of college volleyball.
“She’s been around our program a long time and dealt with more adversity than anyone else,” Cal coach Rich Feller said. “Michelle demonstrated over the last two years her skill of being someone that could communicate and be a liaison between staff and team and someone that players would definitely respect for what she’s done off the court. And the coaches respect her for the way she’s handled herself in tough situations. It was a no-brainer to have her as one of our captains.”
For Feller, having Neumayr back on the court during training camp holds special significance. Feller was there when Neumayr tore her ACL the first time in Atlanta, so he literally has joined her on the journey from the very beginning.
“I don’t even know if I can put that into words,” Feller said. “We definitely have a very special bond. I got to actually sit with her before she went to the hospital and had her MRI. I think ever since then, we’ve been very close and have a good bond. For someone to go through that twice exactly the same and exactly one year apart, I can’t even imagine. More power to her, more credit to her for what she’s been able to accomplish.”
It remains to be seen just how productive Neumayr can be right away. In a way, she is learning volleyball all over again. But being able to finally put the Cal uniform on at all is a not-so-insignificant step in finding out.
“I’m kind of like a freshman again,” Neumayr said. “It’s been a long two years waiting for my shot, but I think I’m ready and I’m really excited to be able to earn that spot. It’s up to me right now. If I put in the work and make the right plays, I don’t see any limit on myself. I’m not really trying to live up to who I was or who people expect me to be, because I’m a totally different athlete and player now. I just think I’m going to have to find how I fit back into the team.”