Richelle Heacock led open gym like she'd never left the volleyball court.
“Let’s try that one again.”
“Make sure you’re putting everything you have into that one contact,” she said to aspiring players at Eatonville High School last week.
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The 24-year-old Ashford resident knows how to give it her all. She was a standout volleyball and basketball star for the Cruisers in the Mount Rainier foothills town until 2008.
Now, her athletic journey has come full circle. She was hired last month as the school’s head volleyball coach.
The accomplishment comes more than four years after a life-altering car accident called into question her future with the sport.
Heacock lost control of her car Jan. 4, 2010, on her way home for the memorial service of Pierce County sheriff’s deputy Kent Mundell, her father’s friend and colleague who died in the line of duty. The accident left her paralyzed from the chest down.
School stopped. Volleyball stopped. Everything stopped.
For months, Heacock was stuck in a hospital bed, at times fighting for her life.
Her recovery has been slow, “like watching hair grow,” she said.
But her determination as an athlete has translated into determination to recover. “My goal still is to walk,” she said in a recent interview.
Heacock has a track record of meeting her goals. She told The News Tribune four years ago that she planned to become a coach as her recovery progressed.
BACK ON THE COURT
Even with so many unknowns, volleyball was still on Heacock’s mind the day of her accident. She asked her parents if she’d make it to Clackamas Community College — where she attended school on a volleyball scholarship — for a team meeting the next day.
Heacock’s mother, Peg, said that attitude is how her daughter continues to make progress in her recovery, making coaching possible.
“Richelle has always been very focused and driven,” especially on the court, Peg Heacock said. “You can take that from sports over to life.”
To her surprise, Richelle Heacock was offered Eatonville’s head coaching job the same day she interviewed.
“I thought I blew it,” she said of the interview.
Heacock said it’s great to be coaching a team she was a part of in the past.
“I’ve had a lot of good coaching,” she said. “I wanted to put that to use instead of soaking it up and not passing that along.”
She’s already putting it to use despite summer break — holding open gyms about two times a week. The season officially starts Aug. 25.
Heacock isn’t new to coaching. Before her accident, she started training athletes at a gym called Nevillizms in Bellevue. She still works alongside founder Bill Neville, a three-time Olympic coach for the U.S. and Canadian men’s teams.
“I’ve learned a lot from him as a player, but even more as a coach,” she said.
At last week’s open gym, her passion for volleyball showed.
Longtime friend Brittany Talbott, another Eatonville graduate, was courtside. She said Heacock is humble and modest, and never got worked up when she played any sport. She said her friend is just as level-headed coaching.
“She’s really good at it,” Talbott said. “She’s very patient.”
George Fairhart, athletic director for Eatonville High School, said Heacock was an outstanding volleyball player. He said the most impressive thing about her was how she carried herself, before and after her accident.
“She helped younger players. She set an example by always working hard,” Fairhart said. “She was a real role model of how a great high school athlete should behave, with class and character.”
Fairhart said Heacock has a great understanding of the game that will give her “instant credibility with the students in the program.”
“When we talk about how sports build character,” he said, “we look at the traits that Richelle has.”
A new approach to rehabilitation gives Heacock more energy, which she said enables her to coach at Eatonville.
Her mother said they sought alternative therapy after some doctors gave her daughter a “hopeless diagnosis.”
Doctors had her on 13 medications at one point, Peg Heacock said, and treatment was geared toward maintaining the status quo.
The homeopathic and naturopathic therapy has proved effective, she said, even if some consider it “bizarre.”
“I don’t think anyone has the right to take away someone’s hope,” Peg Heacock said, adding that doctors seemed more concerned with making her daughter’s life in a wheelchair easier rather than getting her out of it. “Their goal was to teach her to function in this chair, and that’s her life.”
Richelle Heacock said the new therapy has helped regulate her body temperature better — something that is difficult for victims of spinal cord injuries — and she’s even started to regain feeling in her lower back, legs and feet.
She said the hot sensations are “annoying, but I’ll take it.”
At times, she’ll use ice packs on her lower back for no reason, as a reminder of the progress she’s made.
“It’s nice to feel something you couldn’t feel before,” Heacock said.
Despite her progress, coaching on top of a rigorous therapy schedule is challenging.
Heacock said she works hard to manage her energy levels by eating right and taking a lot of vitamins.
At first, she said, it was tricky to coach without demonstrating plays and techniques herself, but she has assistant coaches and former players volunteering to help out.
“It’s taught me to be articulate,” Heacock said. “The best drills are player-centered.”
SAME BUT DIFFERENT
Back home, Heacock works out almost daily. She uses a specially designed treadmill built by a 90-year-old Ashford man in his garage. Now she can use it for 40 minutes at a time.
Her friend, an engineering student, plans to build a special walking machine to help her build strength.
Heacock also uses a hyperbaric chamber and visits at least three specialized therapists on a regular basis, driving as far as Seattle for treatment.
She hasn’t finished school since volleyball and doctor visits keep her busy, but she hopes to be an elementary school teacher someday.
She has finished most of the classes to become an accredited coach, and has traveled to Oklahoma twice to work with the U.S. Paralympic volleyball team. She hopes to introduce one of the players to her team this season.
In addition to increased feeling in parts of her body and other milestones, Heacock can do modified situps in her wheelchair and no longer relies on blood-pressure medication.
All the small improvements add up, she said, and collectively they’ve put her back on Eatonville’s campus doing what she loves.
A renovation her senior year made the buildings somewhat unfamiliar. It feels the same, she said, but looks different — something she can relate to.
But the biggest change is carrying her team from a new spot on the court.
“It’s the same place I played,” she said of her school. “But it’s different on the other side.”