Rachael Adams has used her voice to help get herself exactly where she’s wanted to be in the volleyball world, from playing as a professional overseas to winning a bronze medal with Team USA at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
But until recently, she never felt comfortable using it to share her thoughts on race, injustice or anything else that might be met with the “shut up and dribble” type of reaction lobbed so often at athletes, such as LeBron James, who speak on subjects beyond sports.
After the events of the past few months, she believes that’s going to change.
“In the past I stayed quiet and was afraid of shaking up my surroundings and not trying to be the angry black girl, and I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore,” said Adams, 30. “Leading with vulnerability is hard, and (it’s hard) not being afraid to shake things up and say the hard things like LeBron did. But you never know who’s going to connect with what you’re saying. If he didn’t share his words so many people wouldn’t have been inspired by him. He showed the way to stand up and use your voice for good. I aspire to use my voice more and I want to do that in the best way, not just talk the talk.”
Adams started playing volleyball relatively late compared to some. The summer before her freshman year of high school in Cincinnati, she’d slept over at a friend’s house and the next morning had the choice of sleeping in — which she loves — or going to her friend’s volleyball practice. She decided she’d bring her summer reading book and go to practice, but once there she didn’t pay much attention to the book.
Before long, she said, she was obsessed with the sport and even though she also played basketball, volleyball became her true passion. She wanted to learn everything she could.
“I’d have these celebrations while I was learning to play like, oh my gosh, I got a kill!” said Adams. “That’s exciting! I did it! I’d just start celebrating with my teammates.”
She loved the fast pace, spontaneity and reactionary elements of the sport, and before long she had developed into a top college recruit. She won a state title, then went on to play at Texas, where she excelled as a middle blocker and earned honors including All-Big 12 First Team in 2009 and 2010.
As she finished her senior season, however, Adams thought her career was winding down. She knew pro leagues existed overseas but wasn’t sure how to get an agent or find a job playing in another country. Her degree was in advertising, and she started sending her portfolio to agencies in New York City.
An invitation to attend a coaches’ clinic to take part in drills changed that, however. She started to ask around with some of the people there about playing overseas, and someone who was involved with the U.S. men’s team gave her an agent’s email address.
“I emailed him saying, ‘Hey, my name is Rachael, I don’t know about overseas stuff but I’m looking for an agent,’” said Adams. “We signed a contract together and he found me a contract in Poland. I ended up writing a blog about living in a city I couldn’t pronounce.”
It was sitting in her apartment in Poland in 2012 that she got an alert that the U.S. women’s volleyball team was about to play Brazil in the Olympic Games London 2012, so she opened her computer to watch. Many of the women on the team were either former college teammates or opponents.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, they’re where I was, so how do I get there?’” said Adams. “I researched where the next Olympics were going to be and I still have a screenshot of the Rio Olympics logo I took like OK, that’s where I want to be.”
Again, she reached out to a contact she had from playing on junior teams within the USA Volleyball pipeline asking how to get in.
“He said, ‘This is a good time, (2012 assistant coach) Karch (Kiraly) is going to be the head coach for Rio, I’ll send you his email,’” she said. “So I emailed Karch and he said I’d been on his radar and could I send him a tape, and I got invited the summer of 2013 to the USA gym for a trial, then got invited to stay the rest of the summer.”
Adams was later named to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team and won a bronze medal, and was in the midst of preparing for Tokyo with her teammates when COVID-19 forced the shutdown of activities worldwide and the delay of the Games until 2021.
In the midst of the health crisis, a number of events occurred that brought the Black Lives Matter movement back to the forefront, including the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police.
Adams reflected on her own experiences as a Black athlete in a predominantly white sport and as a Black person in predominantly white schools, and thought about the “layers and layers” of incidents that, while not overtly racist, were nonetheless hurtful and made her uncomfortable.
“For example, I was in school and this girl turned around one day said, ‘Why do you talk white?’” she said. “In my head I was like, ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ You have this picture in your head of what Black people should be and I don’t fit that 100 percent, so you’re wondering why I am the way I am. I always wrestled with things like, ‘You’re not really Black,’ or my hair being the center of attention or being called an Oreo and along the way it ate at me and ate at me. I think I haven’t used my voice as much as I wanted to all along because I did feel like who’s going to listen? And is there going to be a backlash? Am I going to be another angry Black woman just voicing and yelling her opinion? It kept me quiet for a while.”
Shortly after Floyd’s death, Adams posted a heartfelt message along with his image to her Instagram in which she talked about her pride in playing for her country but also the sadness and anger over seeing “people who look like me have their lives look so meaningless.”
The conflicting emotions at times weigh heavy on her, Adams said.
“I love America, but at the same time I know we can be better,” said Adams. “I had read a quote and it said I think it’s more patriotic to notice the flaws in our country and want better for it than to ignorantly claim greatness and disregard major problems that need fixing. I believe that 100 percent. I think it’s more American to want to make our country better for the people that live within it, and I want to be part of that solution because I know we can do amazing things.”
Adams is hopeful. She’s heartened that diverse groups of people are joining in the protests that have been happening across the country. She and her USA Volleyball teammates recently listened to a podcast discussing why more white people are getting involved and why people who’ve been afraid to speak out in the past are finding their voices. She’s seen videos of white people standing up for Black people in ways even they admit they might not have even six months ago.
Although there’s much work to be done, she said, she’s finding many rays of light.
“Even though one person can’t do everything, so many people are tackling different things and that makes me hopeful,” said Adams. “I hope it’s a movement, not a moment or a trend. I’m hopeful in that way that people are making progress and coming together and I hope it continues.”