Jillian Williams made a bet with her father when she was in the sixth grade that she’d someday be a college athlete.
Six years later, Williams reminded her father of their bet as she was signing her national letter of intent to play volleyball for Texas Lutheran University. She looked over at him and said, “Are you ready to go car shopping?”
“It was a big bet, a real big bet,” Williams said, adding that her father paid up by buying her a car. “My mom told him he had to stop betting my brother and I because we kept winning.”
Williams’ college career lasted only one semester, though. Something didn’t feel right. She experienced pain above her left kneecap and behind her knee. She played through it, figuring she may have a torn meniscus.
It turned out to be Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare type of cancer that occurs in the bone or in soft tissue around bones. It was also a blessing in disguise.
Williams, now a cancer survivor at age 22, hasn’t stopped playing volleyball despite having part of her left leg amputated. She has simply adjusted her game as one of the newest members of the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team, which hopes to defend the gold medal it won at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016.
“(My family and I) were worried about life or death. So, I mean, when you’re playing with those kinds of odds, it’s like, what’s going to be best for me to stay alive,” Williams said. “Now I look back and I’m like, I wonder what it would’ve been like if I would’ve kept my leg. But I also know that if I would’ve kept my leg I wouldn’t even be able to play sitting volleyball.”
Sitting volleyball is played much like traditional volleyball, except players move around the court in a sitting position and can’t jump while hitting over a net that’s at a height of around 3 feet.
Williams earned a silver medal with Team USA at the 2018 World ParaVolley Sitting Volleyball World Championships. She’ll be on the court later this month as the Americans compete at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 in Peru, as a tune-up for next summer’s Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Williams started playing volleyball when she was in the third grade, and the following year she began competing in beauty pageants. As a high school junior, in 2014, she accomplished a childhood dream by competing in the Miss Texas Teen USA competition.
“The thing about pageants is most people think that they’re just like, oh, little prissy girls. But I was probably at my strongest when I was competing for pageants,” Williams said. “I worked out crazy amounts; I ate super healthy, so I kind of considered it a sport as well at the time because I was training.”
Williams played more than she expected during her lone season at Texas Lutheran in 2015. She worked her way into the starting lineup as a freshman after the team’s middle blocker broke her hand the week of the conference tournament.
Not wanting to be taken out of the lineup, Williams kept the extent of her knee pain a secret. When she finally visited a doctor, she was diagnosed with a fractured femur and a common bone cyst.
Williams’ doctor, however, felt something more was going on with her knee. He had her return every two weeks for X-rays. On Feb. 29, 2016, during the week of her 19th birthday, Williams was told she had cancer.
“I think I was more shocked than anything because it really didn’t set in about not playing (traditional volleyball) anymore until the following season started when I saw someone else wearing my jersey number, whenever I was not at two-a-days,” she said.
Williams was given three options to have the cancer removed. She decided to undergo rotationplasty. The surgical procedure calls for the knee to be removed, and the foot is rotated 180 degrees and then attached to the femur. The heel faces forward, and the toes are at the back of the leg.
Williams learned to walk with a prosthetic leg. She was introduced to sitting volleyball when she read a Sports Illustrated article about Paralympic gold medalist libero Bethany Zummo, who’s now one of Williams’ teammates on the national team.
Intrigued by what she read, Williams watched the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team during its gold-medal run in Rio while going through chemotherapy. She sat in a hospital, following the games on her computer.
Williams is now in position to have a big summer next year. She’s scheduled to graduate with a marketing degree from the University of Central Oklahoma in May, and she’ll likely leave soon afterward to compete at the Paralympics in Tokyo.
“I think just being able to be one of those people that shows others that (anything) is possible is what makes me most excited,” Williams said.