By Annette P. Gomes, Warrior Care and TransitionMarch 7, 2018
FORT BLISS, Texas - At 6 feet 2 inches tall, Army veteran Sarah Hughbanks, who is volunteering as an assistant coach at the 2018 Army Trials for sitting volleyball, has a bird's-eye view of Wounded Warriors on the volleyball court. She also has a clear view of what sitting volleyball and other adaptive sports can bring to the lives of wounded, ill and injured Soldiers.
"After injuries, some veterans may feel as if they've lost opportunities, but things like volleyball can be part of their journey to find their way back to their true self and help them realize they can conquer anything put in front of them," Hughbanks said.
Her own connection and love of sports began at the tender age of four. She learned the fundamentals of sports from her father while growing up in Idaho.
"My dad was a big baseball person, so when I came along he started teaching me how to throw a baseball that basically helped me develop my hand-eye coordination early on," Hughbanks said. "I started out playing softball and of course basketball because I was so tall. I made the volleyball team in high school, but I was terrible. I believe it was the height and eye coordination that helped secure my position," she laughed while recalling her first experience with the sport.
Hughbanks has come a long way since those high school days. After being honorably discharged from the Army, Hughbanks eventually found her way to coaching volleyball. "I believe I have a special talent for coaching volleyball, understanding the game and finding new ways of teaching it is a welcome challenge. I know I have a gift and when you have a gift you have to share it with somebody."
After a stint coaching at a high school, she was recruited to coach the Armed Forces Volleyball Team at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. While coaching at West Point, Hughbanks volunteered to help coach the Team Army sitting volleyball during the 2016 Department of Defense Warrior Games that were being held there. She enjoyed the experience and made an impression on Team Army sitting volleyball coach Linda Gomez.
"I loved Sarah's energy and spirit. We talked about adaptive sports and her having been in the Army. She fits into my philosophy of working hard and staying humble. She takes direction very well and from a leadership standpoint to administrative things she just gets it. She's a hard worker," Gomez said. "This is a labor of love and we have to remember who we're serving and we're always on the same page. She's been a godsend and I just think she's a phenomenal person."
Hughbanks will tell you that sitting volleyball is much harder than standing volleyball because the ball comes at you so much faster. Your hand-eye coordination has to be spot on and that's a challenge. But teaching players to overcome that challenge is very personal for Hughbanks.
"I've had battle buddies that have committed suicide. I think volleyball, or other sports and activities, can help people connect to something and maybe help them not feel like they should make that decision," Hughbanks said. "I can see it in their faces when they get it. When it all clicks and it comes together and they begin to understand the sport and that connection is made, this is definitely not just about sports or volleyball."
Hughbanks takes particular pride in teaching a sport she loves to Soldiers who have never played and seeing them fall in love with the game like she did. "Knowing that many of the Soldiers did not play the sport before they got injured and watching them find a love for it is incredible," Hughbanks said. "I love to see the light in their eyes. It's gratifying to watch them play so hard and know you've played a part in this life-changing moment. It's wonderful."
Hughbanks has enjoyed playing a part in those wounded, ill and injured Soldiers lives competing at the 2018 Army Trials. She hopes to come back and help coach at the 2018 DoD Warrior Games, June 2 - 9 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and also get more involved in coaching sitting volleyball. When asked about the impact of adaptive sports, Hughbanks herself delivers the answer with raw emotion.
"I believe veterans dealing with injuries often feel as if they're going to miss out on opportunities but adaptive sports provide an outlet for them to find their way back to their true self, it's a beautiful journey and I'm lucky to be part of it."