COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Dec. 8, 2016) – Heather Erickson (Fayetteville, North Carolina) produced a dream season in sparking the U.S. Women’s Sitting Volleyball Team to three gold medals in 2016, including the program’s first-ever Paralympic Games title by defeating three-time defending champion and rival China in the finals.
For her accomplishments, Erickson has been selected as USA Volleyball Female Sitting Player of the Year. Teammate Nicky Nieves (Kissimmee, Florida) was named as USA Volleyball’s Female Sitting Most Improved Player of the Year. The pair helped Team USA to a 21-3 overall record and 18-1 mark in tournament play with titles at the World ParaVolley Intercontinental Cup, the Dutch Tournament and the Paralympic Games.
“I am so honored and excited to get USAV Female Sitting Player of the Year,” Erickson said. “It has been an amazing year for my team and I, one that we have worked so hard for and it has paid off. Getting this award just adds to the excitement of the year.”
Nieves was equally honored with her award as it highlights all the hard work she has put into improving her game.
“Wow!! What an honor!” Nieves said. “This award means that all my hard work has not gone in vain both on the court and in recognition. This past year I really focused more on being able to read what was going on during play so I can be the best blocker I could be, and also put in extra time in my physical fitness so I wouldn't tire easily.”
Erickson, who also serves as Team USA’s captain, was lauded with the 2016 Paralympic Games most valuable player and best receiver honors. She scored 65 points via 54 kills, seven blocks and four aces, which computed to averages of 3.38 kills, 0.44 blocks and 0.25 aces per set at the Paralympics.
For the season, Erickson contributed 230 kills on 518 swings as part of a 44.4 kill percent and .253 hitting efficiency. She added 43 blocks and 25 aces for a total of 298 points. Erickson also pocketed 156 digs and had 166 perfect passes on 325 reception attempts.
“Heather was able to play at a consistently high level throughout the year,” U.S. Women’s Sitting Volleyball Team Head Coach Bill Hamiter said. “She played well when we needed our big players to make an impact. Attacking is her greatest attribute, but she consistently shined from the service line and in other areas as well. Her level of play was recognized by others reflecting in her being named the MVP in both the Intercontinental Cup and Paralympics. I commend her for her efforts. It will be interesting to see how she follows this season in the next quad.”
Earlier in the year Erickson was recognized as a finalist for two prestigious awards – an ESPY in the category of “Best Female Athlete with a Disability” and the 2016 Sportswoman of the Year presented by the Women’s Sports Foundation.
Erickson said the results of 2016 would never have happened if not for the efforts put forth immediately after the last serve of the 2012 Paralympic Games in which Team USA finished with its second straight Paralympic silver medal.
“This 2016 season has been a crazy year with a lot of fun stuff happening,” Erickson said. “Even though everything happened in 2016, all the work and sacrifices happened in years before. My team and I have been putting all of ourselves into the hopes that we might have a chance at possibly having a season like this one. Preparations for 2016 happened for some of us the day after we left the court in 2012 with a sour taste in our mouths.”
For the 2013-2016 Paralympic quadrennial, Team USA finished with a 60-10 record and never finished lower than second in a tournament.
“It was an amazing team to be a part of and to fight with in every game we played,” Erickson said. “It is a rare thing when you find a team that will do whatever they need to in order for the team to win the gold. It didn’t matter to us who was going to get the kill or who was in the spotlight – we all came together and never looked back. I truly believe the selflessness of the team is what ultimately led to us doing as well as we did this season.”
All while having a squad devoted to the team concept, Erickson doesn’t discount the full range of abilities the team possessed to get the job accomplished.
“We had so many crazy good hitters and blockers on our front line, along with our backrow that threw their bodies at whatever they could to get a ball up,” Erickson said. “What I am trying to say is every person on that court had a role and had to execute to their personal highest level if we were going to win any match, and it ended up that we did. I couldn’t be prouder of the girls on this team and I feel so honored to have been able to lead them out as their captain. We set a goal back in Beijing 2008, and finally we have accomplished our goal – though it took a little bit and a lot of hard work it feels good to finally reach that dream.”
Nieves scored 73 kills, 35 blocks and 33 aces for 141 total points in the 2016 season. She converted 32.0 percent of her attacks into points with a .215 hitting efficiency.
“Nicky has contributed to the team in many ways this year, but her biggest improvement and impact was in the aggressiveness of her attacking,” Hamiter said. “We really needed her to take some big swings from the outside and in the middle in two crucial rotations. Her willingness to work hard, make some technical changes in her swing and have a more aggressive mindset paid off for her and the team.”
Hamiter also felt Nieves’ time spent improving her service game was impactful for the team.
“Another area where Nicky made big improvements was from the service line,” Hamiter said. “By the Paralympic Games she was not only serving aggressive, but serving aggressively into the spots that were most impactful for our match plans. Her improvements were a huge key in our success during the year and in winning the gold medal in Rio.”
To overcome uncomfortable levels of tension and anxiety in her Paralympics journey, Nieves said she used her faith and a favorite scripture to combat the nerves and pressure. As a result, she had her best year on the court leading to the team’s first Paralympic gold medal.
“My anxiety was at an all-time high, but a Bible verse that helped ease me was Philippians 4:6 – ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.’"