By Amy Wustefeld
It was just like that dream where you show up at a black tie party wearing a pink dress. Except in this case it was my first day as a prospective member of the Stanford women's basketball team, and instead of wearing all grey with identical Nike running shoes like everyone else, there I was sporting my blue shorts and my high school city tournament T-shirt along with my favorite Adidas.
I immediately gathered that being a walk-on does not go hand in hand with the red carpet treatment. That September afternoon was the first day of practice for the defending national champion Stanford Cardinal. And I was a part of it. No, I wasn't a Parade All-American in high school, nor did I win four state championships, nor was I courted by every top program in the country like most of my teammates. But somehow, for some reason, I felt like I deserved to be on that team.
I first met Tara VanDerveer as a 14-year-old camper at Stanford's summer basketball camp. I had won the camp free throw championship and was given the most valuable player award after my team had won the championship. She presented me with my award, and complimented me on my basketball skills. I was so excited my parents couldn't calm me down for a month. Like hundreds of girls who attend that camp every year, I knew that I desperately wanted to play basketball at Stanford.
After that summer at camp, my 9th grade science teacher asked us to submit a time capsule sheet to him listing in order our five goals to be accomplished over the next four years, in order. He would give these back to us upon graduation. My list looked like this: 1. Get a basketball scholarship to Stanford 2. Be elected student body president 3. Go out with Daniel Harrison. I was very focused on that first goal, and even when I knew that I wouldn't be offered a scholarship, I didn't want to let go of my dream. Or maybe it was the fact that I wanted at least two of those goals to be true since Daniel Harrison chose the cute, small cheerleader type over me in high school (don't they all?).
Three years later, I called Tara and told her that I'd like to try to walk on to her program. I had turned down scholarship offers at smaller Division I schools, such as St. Mary's and Loyola Marymount, and even shied away from a partial scholarship to Cal. Several Ivy League schools wanted me, but in addition to the lack of scholarships I wasn't prepared to deal with the bad weather. Tara sent me a summer workout packet and told me that my chances of making the team were nonexistent unless I was in tiptop shape. After all, they had every player returning except one from a national championship team.
So there I was sticking out like a sore thumb in my non-standard issue clothes on the first day of conditioning. No one talked to me, no one welcomed me with open arms. But what did I expect? First team All-Sacramento area didn't mean much amongst this elite crowd.
At the time, NCAA rules did not permit teams to practice with coaches present until October 15. It was September 15, and I had a month of grueling preseason conditioning to endure before I could even show Tara and her coaching staff what I had to offer on the court. After that month, I had a two-day tryout period on the court as I practiced with the team. That's right, just two days to show my basketball skills. After that, they may not know how I passed during a fast break, but they sure were going to know what my running style looked like.
When I anxiously tore open my workout packet earlier in the summer, I nearly fell off my chair when I read the mandatory workouts that I would have to do six days a week. But I tried my best to do everything they asked, fill out the weekly form detailing my hours and hours of strenuous exercise, and get ready to head to college.
That first day of conditioning was on the track in Stanford Stadium. It was at least 90 degrees outside. I stretched with the team in silence and prepared mentally for the workout ahead. You could sense the dreadful anticipation in the air among all the players. The conditioning that they put us through was anything but fun. It's no coincidence that Stanford not only has the best talent but also does not wear down physically during a game ... the off-season and preseason conditioning programs are straight out of a Navy Seals training regimen (or maybe even harder).
I lined up for my first 800-yard run next to Molly Goodenbour, MVP of the previous season's Final Four. If only I could have stayed that close to her across the finish line. After the conditioning, then lifting, then playing pick-up for two hours, I could barely walk up the steps to my dorm when I got home that night.
That day on the track was the beginning of perhaps the longest and most stressful month of my life. Luckily though, the pressure that I felt during that time was purely self-imposed. No one expected me to make the team. No one was going to laugh at me if I was cut.
Kate Starbird told me once last year that I was the second-most competitive female she'd ever met. Our former teammate Kate Paye took the first-place honors (which receives no argument from me). I absolutely hate to lose. At anything. It doesn't matter if it's at pick-up basketball, bowling, ping pong, Monopoly ... wherever there is a winner and a loser. And I definitely didn't want to be the loser when it came down to making the Stanford basketball team. I didn't care what honors every player received in high school or if everyone except one person was returning from a national championship team. I wanted to be a part of it.
For almost all of that month and most of that year, I still felt like I was the girl in the pink dress at the black tie party. But the bottom line was ... I was AT the party. The day I sat down with Tara in the upper stands of Maples Pavilion, and she told me I'd made the team, I felt this huge sense of relief. I was a member of the Stanford women's basketball team. And for all the hoopla that went along with that distinction, I knew I had a long, hard season full of challenges ahead of me.