Michelle Neumayr knew something was wrong, but she didn’t want to admit it.
In July 2012, Neumayr was ready to get back on the court. During her entire freshman year, she was forced to sit out with a torn ACL, and after a season spent rehabbing her knee, she was hungry for volleyball.
But something wasn’t right.
In practices, Neumayr’s knee would often buckle. She would fall to the floor, and the team would hold its collective breath.
But she would always pop back up ready to go. With a brace on her knee giving her support, there didn’t seem to be a major problem.
“At the time, we weren’t sure of the significance of her knee buckling,” says Cal coach Rich Feller.
And then one day her knee collapsed under her, and she didn’t immediately get up.
Neumayr tore her meniscus, an injury that usually has a recovery of about six weeks. Though frustrated, she was determined to return to the court by the start of Pac-12 play.
However, an MRI later that day revealed a situation that was even worse: Neumayr had been practicing on a torn ACL. She would need another surgery. And she would miss her second-straight season of volleyball.
Though Neumayr was devastated at the time, she spent that year on the bench much as she had the year prior: studying the game of volleyball and hitting the weight room. Soon, she found those years away from the sport benefited her as an athlete, player and teammate.
A year prior to that injury, Neumayr was playing in the 2011 Junior Olympics in Atlanta. It was her last big tournament before she would begin her college career.
On the second day of the tournament, Neumayr jumped for what should have been a routine kill for the outside hitter, but when she landed, she pivoted awkwardly on her knee. She crumpled to the floor as her knee gave out under her, clutching her leg as she fell. It all happened in a blur. Neumayr expected to have rolled her ankle, but her father knew immediately that the injury was much more devastating.
“The way she fell to the floor, everyone knew,” says Neumayr’s father, Preston. “It was clear she tore her ACL from the way she fell.”
Coaches and players darted toward her, fearing the worst. It wasn’t long before she was whisked away to a medical tent amid a flurry of activity. Her teammates held their breath — no one could be completely sure of the extent of her injury just yet.
An MRI later that day confirmed what trainers already suspected: Neumayr had torn her ACL. She started summer school at Cal just three days later and was walking around Berkeley before she even had surgery on her injured knee. Although she easily could have opted out of summer classes to focus on her recovery, she wanted to get on campus as soon as possible.
“I knew she would be back,” Feller says. He was right, but it would take two years instead of just one.
Fast forward a year from that injury — to July 2012 — and Neumayr was faced with a task nearly as difficult as recovering from her first ACL tear: telling her team she’d torn it again.
When she first heard the result of the MRI, she broke down crying in her mother’s car.
“I didn’t even know how to comfort her,” Lynne, her mother, says. “She couldn’t believe it.”
But by the time Neumayr met her team in the training room, she held herself together to give the players the news that she would have to sit out for another year.
“I just felt sick to my stomach,” says Adrienne Gehan, Neumayr’s teammate and roommate. “You didn’t even have words to say to her, because out of everybody, she was the last person you would want to be hurt.”
Neumayr spent that night at her parents’ house in San Mateo. She returned to Berkeley with a cleared head and a new goal: Put volleyball out of her mind, and focus on getting in the best shape of her life.
That day, she sent her parents this text message: “I’m doing it again. If there’s a chance I can play I’m going to get my knee fixed again.”
Her frustration turned to determination, and she began the long road of recovery for the second time. She was soon one of the strongest and best-conditioned players on the team, a result of showing up to the weight room seven days a week for two hours at a time.
For Neumayr, that wasn’t even the hard part.
“I can handle the whole surgery and rehab process — that wasn’t a doubt in my mind,” she says. “It was not being able to be out there again with players I really like and doing what I love.”
By the time the 2013 season rolled around, she was more than ready to return.
Two years on the bench have made Neumayr a leader.
Neumayr built relationships with players in a way she couldn’t have had she been playing. She was able to give advice as if she were a coach, because she couldn’t take anyone’s starting position.
“No one can ever doubt Michelle if she says you have to work harder,” Feller says. “No one can doubt that that is sincere, and that Michelle knows what that means.”
Those two years also made Neumayr one of the team’s smartest players. Often, new players are amazed by the speed of the game in college compared to high school. But Neumayr watched the game for so long that she was ready to slip right into a starting role in August with no adjustment period needed.
“She’s just sat and watched this level of game for two years from a completely outside perspective,” says Gehan, who also has been held out with injuries at various times in her career. “That can really help a lot. Which is one of the reasons she’s such a smart, all-around player.”
It was no surprise when Feller named Neumayr a team captain before she had even played for Cal. Her discipline through the rehab process won her the respect of her teammates, and her knowledge of the game made her a natural leader.
Before the team’s first match of the season, against Nevada, everyone in the locker room was excited for the freshmen to experience their first college match.
Neumayr’s comment from the back of the room? “Hey guys, it’s my first game, too!”
Everyone laughed. She had made it easy for them to forget she was playing for the first time.
She admits she was nervous during the first serve of that first game. Although her recovery is still not over — coming back from two years off is a long process — she is enjoying being what she calls a “normal” volleyball player again.
“I need to stay patient,” Neumayr says. “But I’m having so much fun just being out there. And I’m definitely cherishing every moment.”