[Editor’s note: Cassidy Lichtman was a first-year assistant coach in 2016 when she won a national championship with Stanford University, her alma mater. Lichtman, a two-time First Team All-American during her playing days, wrote thoughtful articles for PrepVolleyball.com during her high school days at Francis Parker, where she was a two-time California state champion, and beyond. This piece was written six years ago, almost to the day, after her eligibility at Stanford was up].
Remember when you were little and people told you anything was possible and you believed them? When someone asked what you wanted to be when you grew up and you said an astronaut or the president or a lion tamer? I had a friend who wanted to be a fire truck. Then at some point when you’re growing up, other people or your own experiences start to chip away at that belief. People start pointing out all the things that you can’t do, all the ways you aren’t good enough, and all the reasons why some dreams will never come true. So your dreams get a little bit smaller, perhaps a little bit more realistic, certainly more achievable. In that way you can still be somewhat successful, depending on how you measure success. But if you give in to all the nay-sayers and limit your dreams you may never realize the great things of which you are actually capable.
I’ve learned this lesson many times in my life, especially through volleyball. When I was in high school people kept telling me about all the things that I couldn’t do. I couldn’t be a hitter at the next level because I was never physical enough. I would never be able to reach high enough or hit hard enough. I couldn’t be a setter because I didn’t have enough experience, having hit all through high school. These were knowledgeable people who obviously had more experience with college volleyball than I did. It was because they were so much more knowledgeable that I almost believed them. But instead I decided that I had to try anyway. Maybe they were right and I would never be good enough, but if I never tried then I definitely would never be good enough. If I didn’t end up on the court at Stanford as a hitter or a setter then it was not going to be because I didn’t work hard enough. My designated position on our roster the last three years: Setter/Outside Hitter.
I have to be honest though. I did have an advantage in this situation. I had already learned that lesson. When I was nine years old I woke up one morning and my leg hurt so bad that I couldn’t walk. In the last twelve years it’s never stopped hurting. I ended up being on crutches for over seven months. The extremely simplified explanation is that my brain constantly misfires pain signals even though there is nothing structurally wrong with my leg. Nobody can figure out why. The doctors can’t fix it so they told me that I was never going to walk again. That crushed me. But I was nine and I still believed that anything was possible. I decided to start walking again anyway and I adjusted to the higher pain levels. The thing is, though, I didn’t just want to walk, I wanted to play volleyball. And I didn’t just want to play volleyball, I wanted to be great. I knew that playing volleyball would make it worse but at the end of the day I loved volleyball more than I hated hurting. Every step of the way I expected to have to stop because it got to be too much. I’ve gotten really close; I’ve pushed the limits just about as far as I could go.
There were moments when I was younger that challenged me. Forcing myself to focus through the fifth match of a tournament when the rest of my body was shot anyway was never easy. But as hard as club may have been at times, none of it prepared me for the toll that college volleyball was going to take. By mid-freshman year I understood that it was going to be different. I realized that I couldn’t be the player I wanted to be without causing myself pretty severe pain. I thought I was near my limit freshman year, which is almost laughable now. The bigger my role on the team became and the stronger I got the worse it was. Junior year I became an outside hitter which meant more jumping. By then I understood what situations were going to challenge me the most and I could see them coming. I knew I had to be overly focused on Monday after a tough weekend, especially if we were traveling. I knew that the second match of any given weekend was going to be like playing with a knife lodged in my shin. I knew that the combined mental and physical stress of it all was going to hit me right at the end of the season. And I knew that it was in those moments, when it was hardest, that I couldn’t make excuses. I had to perform for my team to be successful. At the end of that season, I again believed that I had hit my limit.
Then senior year came. My body had never fully recovered from the stress of junior year, probably because I never took the time to recover; I still wanted to work hard and get better. In the middle of the season I almost broke. I was struggling just to get through my everyday routine—walking or biking around campus, focusing in class, going up and down stairs. There were plenty of times that I ended up back at my dorm after practice in tears. But every time we stepped in the gym for practices, weights or games I knew that I had to be ready to go and my teammates had to believe that I was fine. For my own sake and for the sake of our team, I couldn’t give in. So I didn’t, and once again I decided to test the limit. And I made it through. We didn’t achieve everything that we wanted to last season, but I can look at myself in the mirror and know I gave it everything. And that is what really matters to me. So, I have yet to find the limit because every time I think I can’t take any more, I go a little bit farther just to make sure. That lesson, that I started learning when I was nine years old, is the reason I am where I am today. People can go ahead and tell me everything that I can’t do. I’ll stand up on my own two feet and tell them that anything is possible.
My favorite match ever at Stanford was the semifinals in 2008 against Texas. We were down 0-2 and came back to win in five games in the best team effort I have ever seen. I loved watching the telecast of the match afterwards and counting the number of times the announcers said that we couldn’t come back, that it had never happened in the history of the Final Four. For me, though, that night was all about things that could never happen. The night of that semifinal match was ten years to the day from the moment I woke up and couldn’t walk. Stepping onto the court that night was a major victory already. I went into that match as the starting setter for Stanford after being told for years that I couldn’t do it. So I laughed when they said “never” and when they said “can’t”. Those words don’t mean anything to me anymore. Nothing is impossible until you stop trying.
I would, therefore, like to amend this concept from our childhood. Anything is possible, if you are willing to work for it and struggle sometimes along the way. When people say that you can’t do something, what that really means is that it is going to be extremely difficult. If it isn’t worth fighting for, though, then you must not want it that badly. Anyone can achieve what they are supposed to achieve. It’s achieving the unachievable that is worth celebrating. In order to do so, though, you first have to be honest with yourself about whether or not you are really doing everything you can. It is easy to tell yourself that you are doing everything possible because you think you are nearing your limit. Chances are, though, you aren’t even close to it. If you allow yourself to believe in the limits that others present to you or if you leave the limits you believe to be there untested then you will never know how far you could have gone.
I’m not naïve. I know that some dreams will never be realized. I’m still following a dream and I have no idea how it is going to end. Right now I am not as good a volleyball player as I want to be. In the course of realizing that dream any number of things could get in the way. However, regardless of whether or not I get there, I will still be light-years beyond where I was supposed to be. And wherever I end up, I will know that I left no limit untested. That doesn’t mean that I will have done everything right or made all the correct decisions, but I will be able to say that I honestly tried to do everything possible to be the best that I could be. At the end of the day, that is the best definition of success that I know. So keep dreaming, with the understanding that the realization of those dreams does not come easy. But if you are willing to push your limits, then anything is possible. I’m still waiting for my friend to turn into a fire truck.