Written by Shannon Craighead
Harlan, Iowa native Olivia Petersen knew she was different. No one let her forget it. But what made her different didn’t stop her from pursuing her passion: volleyball.
Olivia was born 6 weeks premature. Growing up, she was sick for the majority of the time and had allergies to everything. The amount of medicine and steroids she had to take caused an increase in weight gain but that didn’t keep her from loving sports, especially volleyball.
“Liv was always excited to go to our school camps for elementary kids,” said Petersen's mom, Tamara. “Many times, I would take her to the camps and she would stand alone. She would go stand by a group of girls, they would walk away. She was teased a lot, being called fat, fatso, cow and many other names.”
Coming home sad and defeated, her parents did their best to lift Olivia's spirits. They eventually tried to keep camp information from her or tell her no, but Olivia was still determined to go because she loved the sport, despite her condition holding her back.
“I wasn’t very good,” Petersen said. “I was pretty puffy from the steroids I had to take from all my allergies and asthma. Coaches would ask me if I was okay because I was always sweating, very red in the face and coughing. I remember I was very nervous walking out on the court with all these girls, but my mom smiled and I did it.”
“Liv would be all sweaty just getting her knee pads on,” added Tamara. “She wasn't quick, her little moon face was beet red and many times we were asked if she was going to be okay. I watched Liv miss almost every pass. I saw her not be able to get the ball over the net. Deep down inside my heart broke for her.”
In 3rd grade, Petersen attended a camp in Omaha, despite her mother's worries.
“When they passed out the pamphlets, I thought 'that sounds like a lot of fun',” said Petersen. “All the girls in my class wanted to play, so I wanted to too.”
“I thought for sure Liv would be so tired she wouldn't want to come back,” Tamara added. “But something amazing happened. Liv came off the court with a big smile and she couldn't wait to come back. She was telling me all that she had learned, how to stand, etc etc... “
Through the next few years, Petersen couldn't get enough of the volleyball camps. It felt like home to her.
“She watched everything Deb (the club director) did,” said Tamara. “She, on her own, always thanked Deb. When we started taking lessons, we realized Deb, no matter Liv's ability, never said 'you can't.' She always encouraged and said 'you can.'”
The encouragement she received at the camps pushed her to aspire to be better. She went to every camp she could, took lessons every chance she got, and worked on her footwork and arm swing at home every night. She also opted to start taking P.E. year round as well as playing basketball, softball, track and school volleyball.
Peterson eventually tried out for club ball at River City Jrs in Omaha, Nebraska. She pays for it on her own, with money from her personal jewelry business on Facebook, “Jewelry by Olivia”.
Her path to volleyball success (Olivia now plays for River City Jrs 15-1 team) may have started out a little rocky, but she never let the bullying stop her.
“The names I was called became secondary,” said Petersen. “It didn't matter that I was called names for being chubby in school every day. I fell in love with volleyball and it was a place I could go to and feel good about myself.”
The encouragement she received from her family helped her through this tough time as well.
“It was hard being called names for my weight and for being awkward when I was young,” said Petersen, “but when I look back, I remember what my mom would say: ’Walk away, come home and we will talk about it. Never let bullies own you. You are your own person, you are beautiful, and no matter what, we are proud of you. Bullies want kids to give up, prove them wrong.'''
Not only has volleyball helped her find her “safe place”, but it has helped her keep in shape, given her confidence in herself and shown her what a team is all about: lifting the team up when they're down and cheering when they're up too. It has also taught her respect and discipline but most of all, she says it has taught her that anything is possible. If you work hard enough and you want it bad enough, it's possible.
“Don't give up if you have some struggles when you first start out. Just keep telling yourself 'you can'”.
River City Jrs 15-1 competed in the 2015 AAU Girls' Junior National Volleyball Championships in the 15 Club Division.
“AAU Nationals is an amazing experience,” said Petersen. “You will see some amazing athletes and meet some amazing friends from all over. Coming from a small town of 5,000 people, the experiences are preparing me as I get older for college and are allowing me to see what I can work on to improve to get to the next level.
Olivia Petersen plans to continue playing volleyball through college and become a physical therapist. She vows to make sure that no other child feels the same way she did growing up.
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