When Lora Webster began to feel constant pain in her knee while playing on two basketball teams nearly 20 years ago, she paid a visit to the doctor. After a biopsy showed a cancerous tumor in her left tibia, the then-11-year-old athlete made one request.
“The first thing I said to him was, ‘Well soccer starts in the spring, so can we do this quickly so I can be back to playing?’”
Webster, 30, an Arizona native and current Point Lookout resident, grew up an active child who played a variety of sports, and continued that rigorous athletic lifestyle following her diagnosis and subsequent chemotherapy. She flew to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil last week for the 2016 Paralympics, which began Wednesday, where she is competing in sitting volleyball at the Games for the fourth time. With a bronze and two silvers to show for it, Webster now seeks the coveted gold.
But the Paralympics were not always on Webster’s radar.
Even after her surgery to remove the tumor — a procedure called rotationplasty in which her lower leg was rotated 180 degrees and connected to the remnants of the femur — she continued her athletic career like she had before. With her foot fitting into a prosthetic leg backwards, allowing her ankle to act as a new “knee” joint, Webster ran high school track for a year, was on the diving team, and played volleyball all fours years, helping her team win the Arizona state title during her senior season in 2004. Later that year, she headed to Athens for her first Paralympics.
Though still able to thrive in the standing game, Webster had been introduced to sitting volleyball a few years prior at a club tournament in the offseason. The transition to the new sport took getting used to, both physically and mentally.
“I got in touch with the coach and he told me it was sitting volleyball and as soon as he said that, I was like, ‘Thank you very much, but I’m not disabled, I don’t need to play disabled sports, I don’t think this is for me,’” Webster said. “It took a lot of convincing, because I had never envisioned myself as disabled. I still don’t, it’s never a category that I considered myself falling into.”
Webster soon realized the challenge of the sport, which is much like the 6-on-6 standing game, but is played on a smaller court with the net about a meter high. Because players are lower to the floor, the game is fast-paced and demands quick reaction time, she said, as well as the ability to move speedily with one’s arms in order to get into position to play the ball.
“It was something that truly captured me, and for the last almost 14 years I have been traveling the world playing volleyball and competing with USA on my back, and that’s not an honor that a lot of people get to have,” Webster said. “The path my life has taken is something that I never expected it to.”
The 5-foot-11 middle blocker has not played standing volleyball in years, and said she is now focused on helping sitting volleyball flourish in the United States, as the 2004 Paralympics marked the first time the sport was offered for women. In Athens, though Webster was happy to be enveloped in a welcoming environment where everyone understood each other’s daily obstacles, coming into contact with so many types of people dealing with adversity gave her “culture shock.” She saw one man in the cafeteria with one of his legs wrapped around a stick, which he was using as a crutch to walk, a sight that she said will stay with her forever.
“It’s just a really humbling experience to see how many people are out there and the difficulties that people of other countries have overcome to still compete,” Webster said. “It’s something that I’m so incredibly grateful for, and at 18 years old you don’t really feel like you’ve seen much, but it really gives you a pretty cool glimpse into the world.”
Webster was named USA Volleyball Sitting Player of the Year in 2004 and 2007 and was the inaugural recipient of USA’s All-Time Great Female Sitting Volleyball Player Award. This year, she has helped her team defeat China — the three-time defending Paralympic gold medalists — all three times they’ve played, including at the World ParaVolley International Cup in Anji, China in March, where the U.S. claimed gold. They will meet China in pool play in Rio and hope to unseat the favorites once again on the sport’s biggest stage.
In addition to Webster’s stellar athletic career, she is also the mother of three children — ages 5, 3 and 1 — and has lived in Point Lookout with her husband since 2008. Because members of Team USA live all around the country and sitting volleyball programs do not exist locally, when not competing in tournaments around the world she does most of her training at home with her family.
“For me, it’s very unorthodox; everything I do, I do in my living room,” Webster said. “My husband and I will pepper and pass and play…I don’t have a lunch break to run out and do something, so it’s all at home and we try to involve the kids as much as possible. They’re young and they know what it is that I’m doing, and they’re as supportive as little tiny humans can be.”
She and her husband, Paul Bargellini, met in New Orleans in 2006, where they faced each other in a series of friendly sitting volleyball matches. Bargellini, a former Long Beach High School volleyball player who later played at the University of Delaware, said though the sport might look easy, it isn’t at all, and Webster’s team dominated his squad, which was still adjusting to the game. Instead of wondering what each Paralympian was suffering from, Bargellini simply wondered who the “tall, pretty blonde” was on the other side of the net who had “mangled” his teammate’s pinky with a lethal spike.
“[Some] people look at her from the outside and they don’t know what to make of it because they don’t understand, so they think ‘poor girl,’” Bargellini said. “Don’t give her an inch, because on the volleyball court she’s going to try to rip your head off.”
Bargellini said Lora’s best training is chasing after their three kids all the time, and that her energy is contagious, which has kept him going when he feels like he has nothing left. That drive in her, which he said has fueled her athletic success, has inspired many, and parents reach out to Webster asking her what life will be like for their disabled children. Bargellini said his wife’s answer is simple.
“[Lora] can just point to them and say, ‘It’s whatever you want it to be. If you want to go out and have a great life, have a great life. Go live it and don’t let this hold you back.’”
Bargellini and the kids will be watching the Paralympics on television and the Internet, and he will be flying to Brazil for the gold medal match on Sept. 17 and staying for the closing ceremonies. Though Webster said she hopes to get gold and is proud of her athletic accomplishments, she values her family more than anything and strives to keep instilling in her children the lessons she has learned throughout her journey.
“People have differences in life and [though some] people are missing pieces, it doesn’t mean that they are any less important or they are any less able to do whatever they want to do,” Webster said. “I pride myself on the fact that my kids will grow up and ask questions, and they strive to understand people’s differences rather then being taken aback by them or being scared of it.”