Virginia local reflects on recent concussion and volleyball journey
By: Rachel Hopmayer
Coming off of her highest individual award yet, Vela McBride is at a crossroads in her volleyball career.
Last year, McBride won Patriot League Rookie of the Year as well as first-team All-League selection after her freshman season. Now a sophomore, only halfway through her NCAA eligibility period, McBride is coming off her third concussion.
“It’s kind of funny, since I did get cleared from my concussion and back in games and practices, I’ve gotten hit like six or seven times with the ball but I haven’t had any symptoms after that [previous concussion],” McBride said. “I’ve just become kind of a ball magnet, so I do have to be careful.”
McBride is a middle on the court, meaning she stands in the front row at the net in between two outside hitters. Middles serve as the main attacker and blocker against opponents’ hits set from across the net.
“Middles, my position, don’t get to play a lot of defense, so when we do we go really hard,” McBride said. “Some of our only opportunities to do that, so we have a lot of fun with it.”
As she was readying for a dig, McBride ran in to the aggressive downward strike.
“I just made the move and the ball bounced up and hit me in the face as it was coming down to the floor,” McBride said. “Kind of two things going at each other.”
This is not McBride’s first brain injury. She suffered two previous concussions before playing for American University and a slew of other injuries.
“I currently also have a torn meniscus, which I’m just playing through,” McBride said. “In high school, I sprained and broke a bunch of bones in my ankle and feet, so I’ve had a fair amount of injuries.”
As a student-athlete who has proven resilience through injuries and healthy comebacks, McBride tried to brush the hit off. Unfortunately, as practice continued to the next drill, her dizziness persisted.
Cally Mackrell, the new trainer assigned to women’s volleyball and swimming and diving, was at practice, which was held at Maret High School since another team was on the American University courts. She administered a paper baseline test to compare on their school computers once they were back on campus and throughout recovery.
“Concussions are tough because it’s not an injury you can see, so she [Mackrell] has a lot of trust in me to kind of report truthfully my symptoms to her and not just try to get back on the court too soon,” McBride said. “She can see some of it in the way I act or the way that I perform on the tests.”
McBride missed six meets while recovering from her most recent concussion. She was officially diagnosed with a concussion the morning before the Eagles were travelling for a tournament in North Carolina that had been rerouted from Florida due to hurricane Harvey.
“[Mackrell] said it was probably best if I didn’t travel, which I agree was a good move because I was having some pretty severe symptoms,” McBride said. “It was a bummer but definitely the right move and it was most important to get better so I think I healed quicker because of it.”
In the meantime, McBride faced physical challenges throughout her two weeks recovery off the court.
“I had a lot of light and noise sensitivity, that was a big thing for me for those first seven or eight days,” McBride said. “I was pretty dizzy, kind of groggy, tired all the time. My symptoms kind of got worse with any physical activity, just walking up the hill from my apartment, or mental activity like trying to do any homework.”
Being an athlete at American University doesn’t cut any slack for academic performance. Last year, American University student-athletes had the highest spring athletic department GPA on record, with an overall 3.47 for the program.
McBride credits the Academic Support and Access Center and specifically the student-athlete staff for supporting her recovery and academic performance through the brain injury.
“We have awesome people upstairs like Erin Saunders … they were able to kind of send out an email and get professors on board with the protocol that we had, so I had time definitely to make up the things I needed to,” McBride said. “My professors kept checking in with me about how I was doing. I definitely had to turn some stuff in late but they didn’t, you know, count it against me or anything so that’s part of the concussion protocol.”
Once she was completely symptom-free, McBride was gradually allowed back on the court.
“I was hoping I could get right back to where I left off, that wasn’t necessarily the case,” McBride said. “It took me about 3 weeks because I had to stop feeling all symptoms … and there’s a progression to play, so I had to do a bike workout one day and lift the next day and then non contact practice and finally contact.”
“The symptoms right now are moving forward from when I got cleared so I don’t think it should have too much of an impact,” McBride concluded. “But the concern is just being careful moving forward from here.”