All that stood between Taylor Tashima and the chance to play for the U.S. junior women's national volleyball team was a tumor twice the size of a golf ball.
Eight days before tryouts, on February 12, doctors Robert Kern and Gary Lissner from Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine diagnosed Tashima with an osteoma. The benign tumor had stretched through Tashima's right sinus and wedged between two eye muscles in her orbital cavity, dangerously close to her optic nerve.
Tashima wondered if she would ever play volleyball again.
It seemed cruel that a tumor growing in one of the worst possible spots could threaten to take away the sport that had become one of the most important parts of Tashima's life. Less than three months before her diagnosis, Northwestern had wrapped up a 16-15 season in which Tashima, Northwestern's freshman setter, led all Big Ten freshmen in double-doubles, recorded 8.38 assists per set (10th in the conference) and at one point notched two triple-doubles in a three-match span. She quickly acclimated to the 6-2 system coach Keylor Chan introduced in late October, proving to be the Wildcats' most versatile player.
But as it turned out, Tashima needed Northwestern as much as Northwestern needed her.
"One more setback"
As Kern and Lissner suggested at the time of her diagnosis, Tashima could have undergone surgery immediately and missed the junior national team tryouts, ending her vision of winning a second career gold medal that summer. But Tashima's actual vision was also at risk. She had a decision to make.
"It didn't fully hit me," Tashima says, recalling when she first heard the results of her CT scan. "In my mind it was just, 'Okay, one more setback, another thing to get through.' I wanted to get it over with and just keep playing volleyball."
Tashima knew what it felt like to represent the United States. She captained the youth national team to a silver medal at the 2013 U18 World Championships in Thailand, one year after the Tashima-led USA team won gold at the NORCECA youth championship in Mexico, in which she was named the competition's best setter. That team also finished fourth in the European Global Challenge in Croatia — the same competition Tashima would play in again if she made the 2015 team. Above all, she knew opportunities to play internationally only come around so often. Tashima delayed her surgery until after tryouts, knowing she was competing for a spot on a team she quite possibly couldn't play for.
"I didn't know if I was going to be able to play volleyball again," Tashima says. "So, what better way to end everything than by playing the best, high-level volleyball in the nation?"
Four days after tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Kern and Lissner removed Tashima's osteoma in pieces during a five-and-a-half-hour procedure. Neither doctor had seen an osteoma in the orbital and sinus cavity, let alone operated on one, but they wanted to avoid leaving a scar on Tashima's face when removing the part of the tumor in her orbital cavity. The doctors made an incision in the soft tissue around her eye through a process called the transcaruncular approach, a procedure so successful that Kern presented the case at a convention in Brazil a couple months after the surgery.
Tashima left the surgery with double vision, which she says faded quicker than expected, then spent the next six weeks recovering while staying "completely non-active." Around mid-April, she gradually eased back into volleyball with a clear protective mask on her face, like the ones NBA players commonly wear after facial injuries.
"It definitely made setting a lot harder," Tashima says of her new facewear. "I had to change a lot about my technique and how I'm used to setting. But I made it work."
Tashima played through Northwestern's spring games wearing her mask, but two and a half weeks after recovering from surgery, a sinus infection sent her to the hospital and sidelined her until May 11.
Incidents like these are now more of a concern than ever for Tashima. Because the bone separating her sinus and orbital cavity is gone, Tashima says her frontal sinus can't drain properly when she gets sinus infections, causing the infection to go straight to her orbital cavity. Kern and Lissner hope scar tissue will replace the bone, but, Tashima says, "there is no way of knowing."
"I'm definitely a lot more cognizant of my body and how I'm feeling, if I'm getting enough sleep, if I'm eating right," she says. "I can't be a typical college kid and just eat whatever I want. I really have to take care of myself. But that's also to my benefit, because when you're a D-I athlete, you have to take care of yourself."
Adds Taylor's father, Paul: "I used to think that she's invincible. Her system has been challenged, so she needs to be that much more aware about sleeping, washing her hands, staying virus-free as much as possible because her body is going to be susceptible."
Taking nothing for granted
In total, Tashima spent two months away from volleyball. She recovered from her infection by mid-May, this time for good, giving her roughly seven weeks to prepare for the European Global Challenge in July — if she made the team.
"As a parent, to see your kid go through that, it tests your faith, it tests your resolve," Paul says. "You want to give your kid as many lifelong tools to weather storms, and Taylor weathered a storm that most kids her age don't have to deal with."
USA coach Tom Hogan announced his roster on May 29, 92 days after Tashima's surgery. The 12-player team included two setters: Jordyn Poulter, an incoming freshman at the University of Illinois, and Tashima.
Three and a half months later, Tashima's decision to delay her surgery had finally paid off.
"It means a lot to me knowing that all the coaches on the USA team had faith in my ability to rebound," Tashima says. "It was definitely a lot of motivation for me to keep going strong and do my best to be prepared to go overseas. I mean, when I stepped in the gym with [my teammates] in Europe, it felt normal."
To get to that point, Tashima worked with her athletic trainer, Haley Zimmerman, and strength and conditioning coach, Joe Nudo, to build back the 20 pounds of muscle she had lost during her two recovery periods. She received support from her family, teammates, coaches and friends through "get well" cards and too many text messages to count. And Tashima's house in Wilmette – just a 10 minute drive from campus – gave her a nearby home base.
"I definitely think it was the strong support system I had at Northwestern that helped me see the bright side through all this," Tashima says. "The whole coaching staff was there for me, and my team came and visited me right after I had my surgery, even though I couldn't really talk because I had stitches [from the surgery]."
Paul says his daughter doesn't take anything for granted, whether it's the opportunities volleyball has afforded her, the responsibilities she bears or, in this case, her health.
"Taylor has such a good perspective overall," says Chan, the Northwestern coach. "She's such a humble person, and hard working. I don't think she's ever had an injury like this, and I think any time anyone goes through that, they take a moment and realize that tomorrow is never guaranteed."
Tashima did recognize what she might have lost — but not until after her operation.
"I didn't fully realize the seriousness of the surgery and what could have happened until after it was all over," Tashima says. "And I'm really glad that happened because it would have made it a lot more stressful."
Thrust into a difficult situation, Tashima adapted just as she always has. And in Europe, with a new team and a fast-paced offense to figure out, she would have to do it again.
On July 3, Tashima left for Venice from O'Hare International Airport for the 2015 European Global Challenge.
The U.S. junior women's national team was supposed to compete in the 2015 FIVB Women's Junior World Championship, initially scheduled in July in Cyprus, the Mediterranean island. But when the tournament was moved to Puerto Rico and delayed until mid-September, the U.S. pulled out of the competition knowing most of its players had college team conflicts, choosing instead to compete in the Global Challenge.
So, it was off to Italy, then Slovenia, then Croatia, where the WJNT would compete against the Croatian and Israeli senior national teams along with the seven matches they would play in the Global Challenge.
Some of the U.S. junior players — like Tashima — had competed internationally before, but many of the girls were still playing together for the first time. The U.S. team spent the first few days getting to know each other as the players traveled around Italy and scrimmaged against the Italian junior national team. But unlike the U.S., the Italian team had played together for years while practicing year-round.
"We don't have that opportunity," Tashima says. "I've played with some of the girls before, but it's never the same team every year."
The U.S. lost both of its scrimmages to Italy before the tournament started as the players adjusted to their new teammates and an offense that was foreign to many of the girls.
"They were teaching us what [U.S. women's coach] Karch Kiraly teaches to the national team," Tashima says. "The offense is very, very fast. It can be high error if the set isn't just perfect or the hitters aren't right on time, but when it does work, there's no team that can stop us."
Playing what Taylor's dad calls "the ultimate team sport," it would have been understandable had the U.S. failed to synchronize and master its demanding offensive system. Every player needed to be on the same page for the team to have a shot. "Any player that is struggling can be a huge detriment," Chan says. "You can't hide them like you can in other sports."
But playing for so many different teams during the last couple years – high school, club, multiple USA rosters, Northwestern – taught Tashima how to adjust to her new teammates and the different playing styles that accompanied them.
"I'm used to adapting," Tashima says. "It is hard because you have such a short amount of time, but everyone [on the JWNT] was so good that it made my job really easy."
By the time the tournament rolled around, Tashima says, "we had figured out a lot of kinks." The U.S. steamrolled through every team it played, including the Hungarian and Slovenian junior national teams, on the way to the finals – except Italy, who dealt the U.S. its only loss of the tournament on July 13.
Three days later, in Pula, Croatia, the U.S. again faced Italy — who else? — in the championship game. Tashima and her teammates rebounded from a 2-1 deficit, winning the fourth set 25-21 before taking the gold when they edged the Italians, 15-12, in the decisive fifth set.
The Italian junior team had beaten the United States three times in an eight-day span, but the U.S. won the game that mattered most.
For Tashima, winning another international medal wasn't all that came out of the tournament. The competition served as a worthy substitute for the high school club tournaments she didn't get to play in anymore between seasons.
"When you have a tournament every single weekend, you're in that competitive mindset year-round," Tashima says. "But in college, you're expected to turn it on right away for a timespan of only a couple months. So I think it was really beneficial for me to go overseas and compete and play live volleyball, because really, you're as good as how much time time you spend in the gym."
Tashima's international adventures might not be over, though the competition will only get tougher. If she tries out for the national team after Northwestern, she would compete for limited spots against the best volleyball players in the country. But going through the U.S. pipeline the last few summers gives her an edge, however slight.
"It was great to learn all the techniques, all the strategy," Tashima says of the Global Challenge this summer. "It'll definitely make it easier after college if I want to, if I get a chance to train in the national team gym. It makes the transition a whole lot easier."
At least one person already backs Tashima, no matter what she chooses to do.
"I believe life is about memories and unique experiences," Paul says. "If Taylor has the opportunity to do something at an elite level that most people don't get a chance to do, why wouldn't you do it? I'll support her as long as she has a passion for doing what she loves."
But for now, Tashima has the upcoming season on her mind – and that's about it.
"I think we're all ready for the season to start," Tashima says. "We're ready to play a lot of volleyball."