One final shot for Illini’s Turner
Excitement rippled through the Huff Hall crowd on Halloween night as Kayani Turner jogged onto the court, her team down a set to No. 18 Michigan.
After being out for three weeks with yet another injury, she was finally back on the court.
Turner felt nerves, something she wasn’t expecting in her fifth year at Illinois. She had a bandage wrapped around her right hand, evidence of a dislocated finger she suffered in practice a few days before.
At a position that relies heavily on blocking, the injury was problematic, but she wasn’t going to let it stop her – not after everything she had been through to get to this point.
With the Illini up 20-17, Turner was given the opportunity to shine on her first play. Michigan set their left outside hitter Juliana Paz. Turner, along with teammate Johannah Bangert, blocked the attempt, jump starting the Illini who went on to win the set and later the match.
The end result was momentary, but the significance of the game-changing block was three years in the making.
The year was 2005, and Turner was playing in her first season with the Illini after redshirting the year before with a knee injury.
Turner burst onto the scene, piling up at least 10 kills in 13 different matches while she suffered from what she thought was shin splints. But her season came to an end in November when she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her left tibia.
After about six weeks, the bone finally healed, but Turner still felt the pain.
“I thought I was kind of crazy, and the doctors thought I was kind of crazy,” she said.
After ruling out almost every logical injury, doctors eventually decided by process of elimination that Turner was suffering from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), more commonly known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), in her left leg.
A chronic pain disorder, CRPS can make pain from injuries feel worse as time progresses, rather than better. Even though Turner’s stress fracture was healed, the pain was worse than ever.
“One of the hard things is we didn’t know much about (CRPS); it’s not something that is common in volleyball players,” assistant coach Kevin Hambly said. “None of us had ever dealt with it, so a lot of our first conversations were, ‘We’ve got to figure out what this is, what’s going on, we know nothing about this.'”
But Turner played through the pain, practicing throughout the spring and summer.
Even with the pain, Turner was having a breakout season in 2006. Teaming with star middle blocker Vicki Brown, the 6-foot-2 front liners formed a formidable duo.
She received treatments, from medication to patches, acupuncture to epidurals, but nothing seemed to ease the pain.
So she just played through it.
While ranking fifth in the Big Ten in kills per set, Turner quickly became an emotional leader of the team.
But the pain became too much to bear, keeping her up at night and affecting her work off the court and in the classroom.
“Sometimes you just get pushed to a limit. My pain threshold is pretty high, but the pain level was exceeding that threshold,” she said. “First and foremost, I’ve got to live my life, and it was affecting the routines of that.”
So it came to light that she wouldn’t be back on the court any time soon, if ever.
After resting for the final few months of the season, Turner’s doctors and coaches advised her to shut down all physical activity, outside of walking to and from class.
Another tough blow came during the spring of 2007 when Hambly and head coach Don Hardin told her to take a step back from the team, which was too emotionally attached to its leader. Turner did not attend practice or workouts all through the spring.
But she was still heavily involved with the coaching staff as a student assistant, something that eased the pain of not being able to play. Giving up the game she loved was something Turner couldn’t deal with.
“My parents always tell me I was a little stubborn as a kid, I just … ” Turner trailed off. “I can’t ever just give up. That’s the main reason I tried to come back a fifth year because I wanted to see if I could do it … and if I didn’t even try it, I’d be wondering for the rest of my life whether I’d be able to even practice or do the elliptical or anything.”
Her final chance
So in January 2008, Turner gave volleyball one final shot. After the pain had subsided for a few weeks, she started her training.
Her first step was riding the stationary bike. After the bike, Turner moved on to the elliptical and slowly progressed until she could participate in volleyball related activities.
In May, Turner finally returned to practice with the team.
This season has featured setbacks, though none as severe as Turner’s 2006 injury.
Still, she was determined to play against Michigan – the match when she recorded that unforgettable block.
“I don’t think we could’ve written it any better,” Hambly said.
As for the rest of this season, Turner just wants to do what’s best for the Illini. Despite her success in the past, the right outside hitter knows she’ll have to earn back her spot.
And with the team ranked No. 16 and third in the Big Ten, Turner doesn’t know if, or when, her role on the team will return to what it once was.
“The team’s doing great, we’re playing well, the chemistry’s great. You can’t ask for anything more than that,” Turner said.
Hambly said that the goal is to have her back in the rotation by the end of the season, but, as Turner knows, nothing is guaranteed.
And if she’s not part of her team’s plans, Turner is ready to embrace the role of a leader off the court rather than on it.
Looking toward the future
But Turner knows her Illini career is swiftly coming to an end. Even though she will move on next year, her future just wouldn’t be right without the game she loves. That’s why the 22-year-old communications major is making the trip to the Final Four – even if her Illini don’t qualify. She has the intention of making valuable contacts in hopes of pursuing her dream of becoming a coach.
In some ways, watching from the sidelines for a year and a half has helped Turner see the game in a different light, in packages rather than individual moments.
That’s how Turner views her entire career: one single play, by itself, doesn’t seem so special. But placed in the context of a career that has been filled with hardship and struggle, that play signifies something much more meaningful.
“All those things, most kids would quit,” Hambly said. “But I don’t think that she wanted to look back on her life, at her volleyball career, and say, ‘You know, I should have gave it just one more shot,’ and that shows a lot about her character and her resiliency. She’s a pretty incredible person; I think anyone who’s spent any time with Kay would say that she’s one of the most amazing people that they’ve ever been around.”
So even if she never played another minute, would it all be worth it?
“I wouldn’t take anything back for a second,” Turner said. “I’ve been injured a lot, more than anyone would want to be, but the other experiences that I have gotten from it are incredible. I’ve learned so much about myself, about my teammates, the game itself; I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”