Hannah Gates — Adversity
Class of 2020 | Charger Volleyball | New Baltimore, MI
WORDS: Brad Monastiere
The sport of volleyball is all about reading and reacting to events that are difficult to predict. The speed of the game, the velocity of the ball, the tension that comes with playing to a score rather than playing to a time makes it a stressful game to watch and play.
But stress is a relative term. A volleyball match, compared to the unpredictable stress life can visit upon a family? Hannah Gates knows all about both.
A senior middle hitter on the nationally ranked Hillsdale College volleyball team, Hannah has had a full experience throughout her career. As a freshman, she was uncertain, wasn't in the team's starting lineup and watched the team miss the conference tournament for the first time in more than a decade.
But since then she has racked up two All-Conference honors, won two G-MAC championships, and is in the program's career top 10 list for total blocks. That doesn't mean her path was easy.
It started in August 2016, when she arrived on campus for preseason of her freshman year. The transition from high school to college athletics tends to be an intense one for most athletes. Hannah learned those lessons first-hand, both on and off the volleyball court.
"We had a workout at Bawbeese Lake during preseason of my freshman year," Gates recalled. "We had an Indian Run. I told myself I couldn't do it. I cried a lot during the workouts. It was a mental weakness I came in with. I wasn't mentally ready for things like snow workouts, beach workouts and that kind of thing. Freshman year was definitely the low point and I started at the lowest point. I told myself I couldn't do it. But every year since then, going into those workouts, I told myself I could do this, and I have succeeded with flying colors."
But Hannah wouldn't let that stop her. She, like most athletes, went through the mental adjustment of expectations. What was asked of her, what was expected of her. As she moved into her sophomore year, a starting role awaited her, with a big recruiting class coming up behind her. She embraced the raised standards, was named 2017 G-MAC Second-Team All-Conference, and celebrated with her teammates on the Dawn Tibbetts Potter Arena floor, winning the program's fourth conference tournament championship in its history.
"Winning that tournament was an amazing feeling," Hannah recalled. "I wasn't really expecting it, but the thought of getting my first ring was so exciting. I remember how much our fans were cheering, how much our teammates were cheering. I was so excited.
But, as life often does, Hannah experienced an unexpected low after an unexpected high. The winter off-season between her sophomore and junior years, she went through a back injury that kept her off the court for weeks. Back pain, as anyone who's experienced can attest to, feels everlasting and annoying. But that was nothing compared to what was to come.
That summer of 2018, her step-sister was the victim of a domestic shooting.
"I was taking summer classes when it happened. I went home that weekend," Hannah said. "I had a job at home and I worked on that Saturday. The shooting happened on a Saturday night."
The incident made statewide news. She was in intensive care for a period of time where her survival was unknown. While her step-sister was fighting for her life, Hannah had a number of life-altering decisions in front of her.
"I dropped out of the summer class I was taking," she said. "There was a point, where she wasn't doing well, if things didn't end up in the positive for (my sister), I considered leaving Hillsdale because my family is so important to me. My nieces are my world, and if they didn't have a mom - it did cross my mind - I'd want to be there for them. I started looking for the why. Why did this happen to my sister and family? But when she started recovering, it was miraculous. She made a recovery in half the time she was supposed to. One thing that came out of that was my faith."
Hannah describes a process where she understood that her sister's recovery was part of a greater plan, by hands not her own. People's pathways into their faith are as unique as all individuals are, and for Hannah's path was laid out for her based on this adversity.
"I went to a public (high) school, and I never grew up around faith very much," she said. "Seeing my sister recover was a huge thing that changed me. I never really explored faith in that way before. I prayed for her constantly and she just started getting better. It had to be something to make me believe, and since then, my faith has helped me in all aspects of life."
As her family life settled, Hannah returned to Hillsdale more disciplined and focused, and had her best season as a Charger in 2018, once again getting named Second-Team All-Conference. She easily set career-highs in kills, blocks and hitting percentage, and helped lead her team to back-to-back conference regular season and tournament titles.
An exercise science major, Hannah is starting to look ahead to her post-Hillsdale life. She hopes to find work as an ultrasound tech and is looking through grad school options.
"It's crazy the change in relationships I've experienced since all this happened," she said. "I am definitely more intentional now. Freshman year, I wanted everyone to be my friend, talk to everyone. Now I realize life is short and you can't take anything for granted. I would rather spend time with a couple really good friends than act like I have like, 15 friends from here or there. I focus on the small circle. They helped me through this hard time, and helped me become who I am now."
Webster's defines the word "forged" as "formed by pressing or hammering with or without heat." Doesn't sound like a pleasant process, but the end result is often beautiful. Hannah Gates has been forged into the complete person, on and off the volleyball court.