Distance does not keep Gophers volleyball players away from one of their favorite teammates. Cora, a seven-year-old, is part of every practice, game and road trip.
Even though she can’t be with the team in person, a spot is saved for her on the bench. Cora’s beaming smile stretches across a custom head cutout. It helps Minnesota’s players and coaches feel her presence during every important moment.
“It was so fun during one of the last games, they made a good play, and it almost looked like Hugh [McCutcheon] turned around and high-fived her,” said Cora’s mother, Amber. “She loves seeing herself and I think she realizes how much the girls care about her.”
Last spring, Cora joined the Gophers’ volleyball team as part of the program’s partnership with Team IMPACT. The national organization pairs college athletic teams with children who are battling chronic illnesses. Cora’s parents, Amber and Kevin Streifel heard about the program and thought it would be a great fit for their daughter.
“We met with them just to kind of get a baseline of if we thought it would be a good match and Cora was in love right away,” Amber said. “She just was so excited to see them every time we got to FaceTime or do Zoom meetings. And this was before she even knew that they played sports.”
As an 18-month-old, Cora was diagnosed with Rett syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder. Cora is nonverbal but communicates by making noises and using a machine that tracks her retinas. The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented her from having in-person interactions with the volleyball team. Instead, Team IMPACT created clinically based “virtual huddle” activities to connect children with college athletic programs. Cora has developed relationships with the players through online activities, such as creating Spotify playlists and playing rock paper scissors.
“It’s been completely virtual, which I thought would be very difficult, especially since Cora’s been in distance learning. I just wasn’t sure if she would be as into it as I’d hoped for, because she’s not really into the computer right now,” Amber said. “We’ve played rock paper tournaments and they set it up like the NCAA basketball tournament and we played with the entire team. We’ve done scavenger hunts and other things too.”
The Power of Music
Each month, Gophers volleyball players and coaches participate in competitive games with Cora. She was particularly excited about an intense game of virtual rock paper scissors. Cora came from behind and beat her teammates in the challenge.
“She was pretty stoked about that. It got pretty competitive. We had all of the choices on her device and she picked every one. She went to the consolation round, but ended up coming back to win it all,” Amber said. “It was so quick and easy. We didn’t need anything besides our computers to play. It was just fun to see the banter back and forth between the team and Cora. It was truly like she was just a part of the team. There was not the stranger in the room, they just completely involved her.”
Since last March, Cora has been unable to receive in-person therapies due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This created new challenges for her parents. Amber and Kevin were doing everything they could to get Cora back on her feet. They tried many different things, but nothing worked better than a virtual huddle activity with the volleyball team. The players and Cora created a Spotify playlist with all of their favorite songs. After the session, Amber and Kevin decided to play the music during Cora’s walks.
“She wasn’t even walking anymore. We couldn’t get her to stand. We were just having a lot of struggle with trying to get her back on her feet. And then when they sent us that playlist, we would play it and put her on our treadmill and walk with her,” Amber said. “And by the end of summer, she was up to almost walking a mile. Like, which is amazing for a kid that could barely stand without falling over at the beginning of the summer. We really appreciated that they were kind of trying to motivate her, and they would use it at their practices, too.”
Cora and the Gophers’ program have one of the largest Spotify playlists in Team IMPACT’s network. The songs are now played during volleyball practices and Cora’s walks. As the music list continues to expand, Minnesota head coach Hugh McCutcheon is relying on his players for advice.
“I just let our athletes take care of that. It felt like my ’80s playlist wouldn’t be welcome on there anyways,” McCutcheon laughed. “If they need more, I’m happy to contribute, but I think they’ve got it squared away.”
Eyes on the Court
The COVID-19 pandemic may keep Cora away from her Gophers volleyball teammates, but virtual platforms are helping all of them stay connected. Cora and her family were even invited to watch a practice from the upper balcony. Minnesota’s players finally had an opportunity to see their teammate from a distance.
“We were up in the balcony watching them practice and they all came over and waved and said hi to her and she recognized all of them right away, which is really cool,” Amber said. “For a kid that’s completely nonverbal to have that comprehension of what’s going on is amazing for us as parents to see, because we don’t even typically hear any vocalization out of her. Every time she is watching the game, she’s making sounds, making noises, like showing us that she’s really into it.”
Gophers player Regan Pittman was overjoyed when the team saw Cora at practice. She hopes everyone will eventually spend time with her in person. Until then, players are doing everything they can from a distance.
“We got to see her from our balcony the other day for practice and it is the first time that I’ve seen her in person. Right now, we’re doing as much as we can for her, but in her eyes, it’s so important to her and her family,” Gophers player Regan Pittman said. “We’re doing such a small thing for them, but it’s such a big thing for them, that sometimes it really puts in perspective how much influence you have and how much people really enjoy watching Gopher volleyball and getting to know us off the court.”
Cora soaked in the chance to see her friends practice. She was mesmerized by all of the action in front of her. Before practice, Cora had the opportunity to meet Minnesota head coach Hugh McCutcheon. Amber said she instantly recognized Hugh and his New Zealand accent. It was a moment that made Cora’s parents smile.
“[Hugh] was super friendly, nice and welcoming to us. I can’t believe how much he has put into it. The amount of time that he has to dedicate to other things and he’s dedicating time to make us feel special and welcome and Cora feel very special,” said Cora’s father, Kevin. “It shows what he is teaching the girls and the volleyball team and why they are such special people and it’s just a great culture that he brings to that team and the people around him.”
McCutcheon and his players enjoy all of the special moments they share with Cora. It is an opportunity for the team to step away from volleyball and make a difference.
“It is really powerful for our program to be able to connect with Cora and her family and have that experience and feel like we’re adding in some small way, some value, some joy to their life,” McCutcheon said. “And certainly we’re getting a lot in return as well.”
“She feels a connection with them”
Since she can’t watch games at the Maturi Pavilion, Cora’s eyes are glued to the television. She stands up, tracks the ball and makes noises as it soars over the net. Cora’s entire family, including her sisters, cheer hard during every big kill or dig.
“She makes sounds, like grunts a lot. And when she’s excited, you can tell she’s trying to get her voice out. We have videos that we’ve sent the team of her. You can tell she’s just cheering on. We don’t know whether she’s going, ‘c’mon get the spike,’ or what she’s thinking, but she’s excited and totally into it,” Kevin said. “She feels a connection with them and it’s great.”
Now, volleyball has become one of Cora’s favorite sports. Every member of the Streifel family supports her teammates, even Amber, a longtime Iowa Hawkeyes fan.
“I am a tried and true Iowa fan, so at first it pained me a little bit. But now I’ve been rocking my Gopher hat everywhere I go because, why not?” she said. “I never grew up with volleyball, like knowing much about it. So it’s very new to all of us. And by far, I think it’s her favorite sport and our family’s favorite sport.”
Advocating for Each Other
Cora and her teammates frequently support each other through text messages, pictures and good luck videos. Her relationship with the team is helping her through any difficult days she may encounter.
“She has really just made strides beyond what we could ever imagine. And I can just see her continuing to make strides because of the motivation that she’s getting from people like the University of Minnesota volleyball team,” Amber said. “I feel like they are her fans just as much as she is their fans. They advocate for her. Every time that we pass on that she’s not having a good day, they’re sending us good luck messages.”
Amber and Kevin cannot put into words how much the Gopher volleyball team has impacted their family. They are very thankful for everything the program is doing for them.
“They are just beautiful, kind and caring people that are very good at volleyball. It’s a lot more enjoyable to watch them while knowing how good of people they are,” Kevin said. “It’s just great to see good people succeeding.”
Team IMPACT is always recruiting families and teams. If you would like to be a part of this program, visit their website for more information: https://www.teamimpact.org/
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