I met Chiara three years ago when she walked in the gym ready for practice wearing silver studded Chuck Taylor Converse tennis shoes. I immediately thought to myself : “I’m either going to love or loathe working with this kid”. In all of my years coaching at the juniors level, I have learned and have openly accepted that “coach” also means mentor, friend, big sister, mom, psychologist, point of reference, role model, disciplinary figure (and the list goes on and on).
This special job has allowed me to bond with all of my kids as they have become a second family for me. Over the years I have grown particularly close to four of my athletes/ex athletes. One of them is Chiara. When I first started working with her technically on a scale of 1 to 10 she was about a -5! On the flipside however her leadership qualities, determination, courage, drive to simply “improve” just for the sake of improving and overall concept of “team spirit”on a scale from 1 to 10 was about a 15! At the end of that first year I was asked by the federation if I had any promising athletes in Chiara’s age group. I told them no, however I did have an athlete that was tall, had a strong personality, was willing to work hard and was very “team oriented”. I relayed that information to Chiara and explained what would have been expected of her.
She was up for the challenge and was subsequently moved to the strongest group within her age level. For the last two years she simply worked the hardest I've seen a girl work! She ended up being selected for the San Marino’s Junior’s National Team that recently competed in and took a silver medal in the Under 19 Women’s European Championship (Small Countries Division). Although she made the cut for the 15 athlete training roster, she wasn’t selected for the 12 athlete competition roster. I remember consoling her. She looked at me, her fiery eyes filled with tears and said “Meika I worked my so hard and I didn’t get picked, it’s not fair!” I replied without flinching “This is the first time that you have ever worked this hard, and now it looks like you are going to have to work harder.” She dried up her tears, cheered on her teammates, and I am certain that even though she wasn’t on the court for the team’s ultimate success, she knows deep in her heart that that silver medal is just as much her personal triumph as well as a team victory. And rightfully so.
During the summer months I organized volleyball oriented summer camps for elementary school children, and beach volleyball camps for the older kids. Chiara participated in both. She’d stop by the children’s summer camp to help out and play with the kids once in a while. She also participated in the beach volleyball camp. The first year the of the beach volleyball camp was organized strictly for the juniors boys teams. Upon learning this, Chiara walked into the office and said “When does the girl’s camp start?” I replied “There isn’t a girls camp this year, not enough of you signed up.” to which she responded “Then when does the boy’s camp start? "I’m signing up!” She is the reason that this past summer we also organized a successful beach volleyball girl’s camp in which of course she took part. Only weeks after that camp Chiara’s life would change drastically. She wanted to stop by the children’s summer camp to help out and hang out. “Hey I’m gonna swing by tomorrow. I’ll bring you guys some breakfast” she said. “I’ll be there at 9:30”. I distinctly remember the staff laughing and joking around about 10:30 how Chiara had probably been out the night before partying with her friends and was probably still asleep. Instead she was being rushed to the ICU with three broken vertebrae and a punctured lung while her totaled scooter lay on the road, our breakfast croissants and muffins scattered on the asphalt.
Destiny is the strangest concept to me. I have long stopped trying to wrap my head around it and I have simply come to peace with the notion that wherever I find myself in this lifetime, it is where I am supposed to be while destiny does what it's supposed to do. When I met Chiara I never thought that our player/coach relationship would become what it is today. I never thought that I would learn so much from the very 16 year old that I was supposed to be teaching. I remember standing in front of her hospital bed just four days after her accident. She was lying there with three broken vertebrae, a punctured lung and the most light and fight I have ever seen in anyone's eyes. She was the strongest person in the room and I find it hard to cry over her circumstances. I feel like it would be disrespectful to her. All I know is that that day I felt so small standing over her hospital bed.
Fast forward, life as I knew it, hectic but fulfilling with my 150 little volleyball players continued. The season was about to start and I was very much in preparation mode. I got a phone call one morning asking me if I knew anyone in Italy that did charity work. I did, but I didn't mention the people I knew. I mentioned Chiara, who I would be visiting that very evening along with some of my athletes who hadn't had the chance to see her after the accident. That trip to see her had been planned for over a month. I was asked to speak with her and to ask her if she would be interested in being one of the many faces of DE51 & Friends. I knew that her situation was delicate but I was confident that she would accept "the challenge" because she is truly a force to be reckoned with. I first spoke with her parents and informed them of my intentions. I needed their blessing. I then sat down with Chiara "shooting the breeze" as we had always done and asked her what she thought about having the opportunity to be an example for others and to be able to begin her healing process. She looked me square in the eye and said "I have to give meaning to all of this somehow. I'm scared, but I'll do it". Her parents looked on, their eyes welled with tears.