The “back” story on Taylor volleyball player Kayla Springer’s long comeback

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UPLAND, Ind. (WTHR) – Taylor University senior Kayla Springer plays volleyball with a big smile.

“I just love the game and it's so much fun,” said Springer. “I'm definitely a celebrator, big time. There's just something about the game. It just gets you. It's fast. It's competitive. It's unpredictable. It's just a blast. I think with anything, too, it's the people that you get to play with.”

But Kayla's joy in volleyball comes after plenty of pain. She won the Class 4A state championship and the Indiana High School Athletic Association mental attitude award as a senior at Avon High School. She was committed to play college volleyball at Taylor University. But Kayla was suffering from severe lower back pain and tight hamstrings.

After months of physical therapy and chiropractic treatment, she was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis. Her 5th lumbar vertebra had slid inward over her sacrum. Doctors determined that Kayla was born with spina bifida occulta. Her genetic condition was made worse by years of athletic wear and tear and likely an undiagnosed stress fracture.

Kayla underwent a five hour spinal fusion surgery during spring break of her senior year at Avon. Her recovery was as slow as her first steps with a walker in the hospital. Kayla used a walker for a month and wore a back brace much longer. She went off to Taylor, but could only watch her teammates as a freshman.

“I did a lot of shagging balls during practices and filling water bottles, starting the camera for games,” said Springer. “In a lot of ways at first that was really hard because I didn't feel like I was contributing.”

Kayla remembers one frustrating day at practice her freshman year. She was completely captivated by the message on a purple banner on the wall of the gym at Taylor that quotes Jeremiah 29:11 from the bible.

“I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord.

“I looked up and I saw Jeremiah 29:11 and I think it was just kind of revolutionary for me that day just to know that there was a plan and even if I couldn't see it or whether that included volleyball or didn't include volleyball, just to know that there was a plan and it was good and there was someone in control other than me who felt so out of control,” said Springer. “I just learned so much about servant leadership that first year, how I can be a part of a team by serving someone and filling up their water bottle. It's a funny concept, but something that I'm so glad I was able to learn.”

Kayla played sparingly as a sophomore, but needed about two years to fully recover and play well again as one of the Trojans top blockers and right side hitter.

“Sometimes if she stood for too long she'd have pain,” said Kayla’s teammate and roommate Jessi Arbuckle. “Sometimes if she slept the wrong way she'd have pain. Now she's playing volleyball and she's diving and rolling and it scares me every time. She's my roommate and I don't want her to get hurt again. She's definitely pushed through a lot of pain and a lot of heartache because she loves the sport so much. It was so hard for her not to play for so long. It's been cool to watch her journey. She's taught me a lot about injuries and recovering and keeping your heart in it while in that process."

The long comeback has taught Kayla patience and the willingness to accept help. The struggles have strengthened her Christian faith.

“To put my identity in something that doesn't change and can't be taken away is huge,” said Springer. “That just kind of translates into making everything else that much better and that much more worth it because they’re just all add-ins. My identity is in Christ who doesn't change. Volleyball is just a special piece of that."

“The hope she has found through that process has been phenomenal, and how she's used that to lead the other girls on her team and inspire others also to work hard, do their best day in and day out," said Taylor volleyball head coach Erin Luthy. "Kayla's our leader. She creates a consistency of leadership on the court that is just phenomenal. She's poised, confident, and vocal in a sense that she brings so much knowledge to the game.”

She will graduate from Taylor with honors this spring with a degree in sports management, but Kayla's comeback will continue in the fall on the Upland campus. She'll use her final season of eligibility to pursue a master's degree in higher education. She wants to become a college coach.

“I love the platform that it is,” said Springer. “I love being able to help girls have that breakthrough moment is just something that is so rewarding. Having that little time when I didn't have volleyball, it's another way to put it into my life and another way to be able to not lose it I guess."

“She knows more about volleyball than anyone I know, as a student too, which is crazy,” said Arbuckle. “But I think the thing that sets her apart is she has a huge passion for the game, more so than anyone I've ever played with."

Kayla still lives with some discomfort and soreness after matches, but a long comeback has left her with a big smile of gratefulness.

“At Taylor we have a saying, 'All for Him, we play to win.' That encompasses so much of why I wanted to come back,” said Springer. “To just be able to play with a group of girls that are just so hard working and competitive, but are all focused not on looking on these incredible talents that they have, but giving them back to the glory of God was just something that watching that every day in practice, I was like, 'Yeah. I want to do that.' That definitely helped me push through.”

Kayla will be honored with the Brady Comeback Award http://msm-foundation.org/bradyawards/ presented by Methodist Sports Medicine at the annual event Thursday night at the Indiana Roof Ballroom.

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