Cal volleyball’s Savannah Rennie returns to the court

Ketki Samel/Staff

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Savannah Rennie is the ultimate fighter and champion.

Three years ago, Rennie left her sunny San Diego home for Berkeley, where she was set to be a hitter on the Cal volleyball team. But rather than taking the court, Rennie was forced to sit out her freshman season as she suffered congenital hepatic fibrosis with portal hypertension, a rare liver disease. While her teammates began spring training, Rennie underwent a transplant. But just five months later, she was back on the court for the fall season. Rennie is a success story.

That, however, wasn’t her only victory.

After the fall season concluded, Rennie began putting in work during her first true offseason. While spring training sessions are known for their rigor, Rennie developed symptoms of fatigue far beyond the expected. Eager to remain active and competitive, Rennie convinced herself that her symptoms were the result of hard work and getting in shape.

“I was like, ‘These are just repercussions of hard practices,’ ” Rennie said. “ ‘You’re just tired to this magnitude because you’re working hard and doing a lot compared to what you were doing a year ago.’ “ I kind of put it off to the side, and then some other symptoms started to come up, like not being able to breathe during conditioning workouts and wanting to pass out during practice.”

When the training season concluded, Rennie was still trying to attribute her constant fatigue, lightheadedness and fragility to the intense workouts. Although she originally elected to spend the summer in Berkeley to train and take summer courses, she decided to take time off from the gym.

“The symptoms were still so bad,” Rennie said. “I was lightheaded all the time, I’d sleep all day and I started to get abdominal pain. That was a big sign of something wrong.”

When she visited the doctor, her blood work came back normal, her kidneys were performing well and there were no problems with her liver, yet Rennie began dropping weight.

“It just got worse and worse and worse,” Rennie said.

Eventually, Rennie’s boyfriend, former Cal swimmer Long Gutierrez, texted their shared trainer Elaine Garcia about Rennie’s symptoms. Although Rennie was determined to avoid the hospital at all costs, hoping her health issues would resolve themselves, Garcia helped Gutierrez get Rennie to the emergency room.

After spending all night in the emergency room and being subject to scans and tests, Rennie finally received an explanation for all her symptoms: She had a large mass in her abdomen that needed to be removed the next morning.

“They couldn’t see it before because it was behind organs,” Rennie said. “The only way we would have found it was the scan. If I didn’t go to the ER, I wouldn’t have known I had a humongous mass in my abdomen, so thank you to Long and Elaine.”

Rennie was diagnosed with post-transplant Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and she underwent surgery the next day, with Gutierrez, her mom, her aunt and her grandmother by her side.

A second major win, and likely the largest, but again — not Rennie’s last.

As she recovered from the surgery and began chemotherapy, Rennie kept going to practices and matches, shagging balls and supporting her teammates while never donning her white No. 16 jersey.

When Arizona and Arizona State came to play Cal last fall, Cal dedicated the weekend to showing support for Rennie. The players wore #SavStrong armbands, and videos about Rennie’s recovery were played on the big screen.

“At that time, it was really hard to be in-season yet know you’re never going to dress out,” Rennie said. “I can use my voice, but you never feel like you’re fulfilling everything you can for the team. Seeing them support me let me keep supporting them, even though I might’ve been super down.”

Rennie was cleared to play volleyball on the first day of 2018 spring workouts and has been on the court ever since. In Portland last month, Rennie played in her first match back, helping the Bears to a 3-2 victory over Portland State.

That first match back — after a forced break from the court — marked another significant win for Rennie.

“Chemo takes the life out of you — literally,” Rennie said. “It kills everything in your body, so getting back was obviously hard; you’re completely different, and your body’s figuring everything out again. It’s an ongoing process.”

Rennie could have left the team after her surgery, or at least trained lighter throughout the spring. But the competitive champion blood that runs through her veins wouldn’t see that happen. So far, Rennie has played in five matches, and she continues to grow each time she takes the court.

“During the games, I’m so focused on what I can do to win, for the team and what I can do to benefit the team, but after, I’m like ‘Wow, I played,’ ” Rennie said. “I’m sore because I played, not sore because I’m in chemo and walked around too much. I’m sore because I played and helped my team do something.

“Being dressed out in a jersey, kneepads, shoes, everything — looking like your teammates instead of standing in the warmup jerseys that don’t match our jerseys. That’s a big deal.”

Rennie, the younger of Bill and Renee Rennie’s two children, grew up in a household of athleticism. With older brother Luc always being a standout baseball player, Savannah was eager to beat him.

When Rennie recalls what made her so persistent about getting back into the gym, she thinks of Luc and the drive she’s had for as long as she can remember.

“Having an older brother, I always wanted to beat him; I came out of the womb competitive,” Rennie said. “I know I’m not the best at everything, but I want to be the best at what I do and work towards that. My brother has set an example for that.”

While Rennie admits she had her share of tough days, her work ethic and resiliency, which she attributes to her genes and family, ultimately brought her back to the court.

Rennie came to Cal as a top recruit from her class, but when she graduates, she will have left so much more than kills or blocks recorded. Rennie’s wins will stay with her, but perhaps a fraction of her resilient spirit will stick around the Berkeley community.

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.