Hannah Werth eyes NCAA championship

LINCOLN, Neb. -- What if, to become Superman, Clark Kent had to put on his glasses?

Somewhere, mixed in with nature and nurture, there is free will. And there is also force of will. When you are a third-grader who's adamant about returning to the thing that just missed killing you, all of this is at work.

"I honestly can't tell you my thought process then," Nebraska volleyball player Hannah Werth said. "Except that there was no option to me but to go back out. None."

The ice was the first place she'd sought to find her athletic destiny. There was really no doubt she was going to have one. Oh, sure, she'd once announced to her parents, Kim and Dennis Werth, "I'm never doing sports."

But what she really meant was, "I don't want to do your sports." Kim had been a track and field standout, as had Hannah's sister, Hillary. Dennis was a former major league baseball player. Hannah's grandfather and uncle on her mom's side were both longtime major leaguers. Her brother, Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth, currently is a high-value free agent.

Hannah, the youngest, had to find her own thing.

"Starting when she was about 3 years old, all she talked about was being an ice skater," Kim said. "So, finally, she goes to her first ice-skating session. She thinks she'll go on the ice and instantly be Michelle Kwan.

"She's sliding all over, and then she comes back to me, and she is so mad. She's like, 'I want to do all that stuff!' And I said, 'Hannah, that takes so much practice.' That was when I knew this kid was going to be very determined."

When you see 20-year-old Hannah Werth now, you do not think of figure skating. She's a sophomore outside hitter, a robust combination of upper-body strength and lower-body power.

A Springfield, Ill., native, she was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year last season. Monday, she was named the league's defensive player of the year and was selected all-Big 12 first team, with 244 kills, 262 digs and 43 total blocks. The Huskers, champions in their final season in the Big 12, are the No. 2 overall seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

Nebraska does not stand out statistically as a team because of a stockpile of talent. Five players on coach John Cook's squad average more than two kills per set, and that collective force has propelled the 27-2 Huskers this far.

However, in a program this popular in the community and the state, players do stand out as individuals because the fans see them that way. And there really is no other way to view Werth.

The one with the Rec Specs, the black bandana headband, the towel tucked in the back of her shorts -- and so much energy she usually can't stop herself from bouncing like Tigger over to every huddle.

A little Huskers fan came dressed up like Werth for a pre-Halloween match Oct. 30 at Nebraska Coliseum. You suspect volleyball-playing youngsters across the entire state have started mentioning vision problems in hopes that they, too, could get some specs and look like Hannah.

Ron Hruska, a Lincoln-based biomechanics expert and physical therapist who has worked with Werth, quips, "Now she's a rock star with these goggles."

But Werth didn't start wearing them until mid-September when conference season began.

"I could tell a huge difference," she said, "in terms of being balanced and in technical ways: on defense, hitting, seeing the ball better, landing properly."

So how did she become one of the best volleyball players in Illinois high school history and a starter for college powerhouse Nebraska without the Rec Specs?

She compensated for it with sheer athleticism. The glasses, in fact, were only part of a perplexing jigsaw puzzle that Nebraska's coaching staff, athletic-medicine department, consulting specialists and Werth had to figure out.

One piece of the puzzle went all the way back to third grade, and a day Werth still seems amazed wasn't her last.

If you look closely, you'll notice Werth's jaw seems a bit oddly shaped in one spot, and then you see where the scar starts. It runs quite a long ways underneath her chin. Then on the right side of her neck are two shorter scars.

"That was where the toe pick hit me," she explains.

This is the stuff of parental nightmares, and Kim sometimes still has them.

"It was like watching your kid run out in front of a car," she said. "You see it happening, and you cannot stop it. It was the kind of injury that could be almost instantaneous death."

Indeed, the fear of a skate blade slicing a neck is a concern enough in the NHL that every team now has a trauma-injury specialist on hand at each game, just in case.

For Werth, it's likely mere millimeters were the difference between her enduring an extensive and painful stitching up in the emergency room or …

"I'm lucky to even be alive, really," she said. "I think I still take that into my everyday life. I am so fortunate to be here."

In third grade, when there already had been some discussion that she might need to move to a figure-skating mecca like Colorado Springs to train, Werth was practicing her short program and went down into a sit spin. Another girl was skating backward, and lifted one leg behind her. She didn't see Werth.

"She cut me so smoothly, that it cut part of my jaw bone off and then hit me lower in the neck," Werth said. "I bit through my tongue, and suddenly I guess there was blood everywhere. A woman who was a coach came up, and she's saying, 'Oh my God,' and she's shaking and holding me, and trying to put my chin back together, basically.

"Then I saw my mom. It was really traumatizing for her. So I said, 'I just need a band-aid.' I could see my mom was so scared, and I wanted to be strong."

Several hours and 50-plus stitches later, Hannah arrived home from the hospital and cried, partly in relief it hadn't been worse. So you might think that was the end of her skating days.

Yeah, right.

Her parents may not have wanted Hannah to ever return to the ice. But they also knew trying to stop her would be about as effective as telling a hurricane it was forbidden to make landfall.

"As soon as she got her stitches out," Kim said, "she was champing at the bit to go back."

Well, tree, that's your little apple. As a track athlete, Kim competed in the 1976 Olympic trials despite a serious back injury that would interrupt her college career. Thus, many years later, the mom in Kim was terrified about Hannah skating again after the accident. But the competitor in her understood it.

Plus, it was the nature of the beast. If everyone who'd ever been hurt while learning to skate had stopped doing it, there wouldn't be figure skating.

"I had felt those feelings of fear on the ice before, like when you get strapped into the harness when you're learning to do jumps," Hannah said. "But I felt like that's how it's supposed to be, and what you have to deal with, if you want to be great."

So back to the rink Hannah went. She jumped, slipped … and cracked her head on the ice.

Another trip to the hospital. This time, she reached a different conclusion, one genetics would have eventually forced her into anyway.

"I had to get a CAT scan," she said, "and after that, my mom said, 'Hannah, I don't think God wanted you to be an ice skater.' And I said, 'Mom, I think you're right.'

"And I ended up being 6-foot-1, and can put on muscle pretty good. I think volleyball is a good choice."

Werth went from one state capital to another for college. Cook's discipline and the passionate Huskers' fan base lured her to Lincoln.

"We fell in love with Hannah the first time we saw her play as an eighth-grader," Cook said. "At that age, when you see a kid competing the way she was competing … I turned to my assistants and said, 'We've got to get that kid to Nebraska.' She's an inspiration to coach in that she's so passionate and wants it so bad."

Someone else had noticed the same thing a little earlier. Jenny Wood Holliday had been an All-American at Florida, playing volleyball from 1993-96 before returning home to Springfield where she coached at various levels and currently runs a club program.

Holliday wanted to mentor Werth as soon as she saw her in a youth tournament.

"I called my former coach at Florida the next week," Holliday said, "and told her, 'I've got a girl for you … but she's still in junior high.'"

Florida -- the No. 1 overall seed in this year's NCAA tournament -- didn't end up getting Werth. But she carries some "Gator" with her, wearing No. 44 in honor of Holliday, who wore No. 4 at Florida. Holliday has made her own tribute to Werth. She and her husband, Ron, named their daughter Hannah.

"She is that special to me; she reminds me a lot of myself," Holliday said of Werth. "I'd be working her in a drill, and she'd be almost dead, but she'd be saying, 'Come on, give me some more.' I've never had a girl like her. And I've coached a lot of kids whom I'm very close with. But Hannah is a different breed."

Yet, for all her athletic ability and competitive spirit, there was something about Werth that Cook couldn't understand. Why did it appear the hard stuff was easy for her … but sometimes the easy stuff was hard?

"Technically speaking, she had a problem with a biomechanical approach to the ball," said Hruska, whose Postural Restoration Institute does consulting work for the Nebraska athletic-medicine department. "And that movement pattern that was limited had to do with what she perceived herself doing correctly, but was actually incorrect. Her vision was a part of it."

Werth had worn glasses outside of volleyball in high school, but they hadn't helped enough. At Nebraska, she tried wearing contacts, but they popped out frequently because she had dry eyes and did everything on the court with such force. A behavioral optometrist, Dr. Heidi Wise, was consulted. Werth got a prescription that really worked -- very strong in the left eye -- which put her into the correct pair of glasses off the court and the Rec Specs on it.

"I applaud Nebraska -- the coaching staff, their athletic-medicine division -- for helping athletes like her," Hruska said. "If these issues hadn't been addressed, here's an athlete who would have gone through four years of hell.

"Because you have this dichotomy of a woman who had so much potential, so much genetic strength and ability; she's very gifted. You won't see very many people at Hannah's level. Yet she had some things that were limiting her. This is somebody who has a 16-cylinder engine, but at times she couldn't figure out how to access all that power. It was like she was operating on one cylinder."

The glasses, eye exercises, an orthodontic bridge to align her jaw, orthotics in her shoes, and specific elements to her strength and conditioning program all helped. Werth may one day still need reconstructive jaw surgery, but not until after her athletic career. Now, in retrospect, she can trace a root of the problems to that first accident on the ice.

"When the skate blade hit me, it was kind of like an upper-cut punch, and it threw off my vision and my center of equilibrium," she said. "We just could never quite figure that out for a long time."

Holliday said, "I feel bad that I couldn't tell she wasn't seeing right. I think, 'How did we not know?' But then again, how could we know when she was playing at the level she was playing?

"She's at a different level now. Just wait and see where she's gonna be in a couple of years."

It isn't just the goggles that have changed about Werth's appearance since this season started. She darkened her natural blonde hair to reddish-brown and let it grow out. She added the headband.

It's as if the "real" Hannah inside is now more visible on the outside. Nebraska has its samurai warrior. Let's face it: Not everyone is supposed to blend.

"Growing up, I would love designing clothes … like stuff nobody would ever wear," said Werth of another genetic talent, for drawing. "But I'd think, 'Well, I would wear that.'"

Kim said, "If she likes something, it doesn't matter to her if anybody thinks it's nerdy or dorky. At first I thought, 'They are not going to get her at Nebraska,' because a lot of people don't. But her teammates and so many involved in volleyball there embrace her quirkiness. She's always owned it, and a lot of girls won't do that. It's a big step to take to just be who you are."

So … about Clark Kent. Werth doesn't want to be "superwoman." No one player really could be that anyway at Nebraska, with its continuing history of All-Americans, heavy hitters and digging demons.

But Werth does want to be great. Her grandfather, "Ducky" Schofield, played on a World Series-winning team in Pittsburgh with Roberto Clemente in 1960. Her brother won a championship two years ago with the Philadelphia Phillies. When she went to one of Jayson's 2008 World Series games, she started crying before it began, looking around the stadium.

"The whole scene just gave me goose bumps," she said. "And I felt like I was part of something so much bigger than me."

In a way, she always has been. Her "great" will be defined from within. It will belong to her family's extensive athletic history … but also just to her.

And then there are moments like this one, when a bespectacled youngster approached her after a game this season.

"He had one eye that was different-looking. I don't think he could really see out of it," Werth said. "And he said, 'Hey, Hannah, I really like your glasses, I have some just like that.'

"It was almost like, 'Thanks for making that cool.' Because I could see maybe other kids might make fun of him for it. I have these little girls come up to me, too, telling me about their glasses. They get excited about it. It's kind of like celebrating your flaws, almost. Appreciating who you are for what you are."

For Clark Kent, glasses obscure just how strong he really is. But for Hannah Werth, glasses have revealed it.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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