Keeping their Witts about them
Sisters Madison and McKenna Witt continue their pursuit of excellence despite setbacks off the court
Arizona's beach volleyball stars, Madison and McKenna Witt, have battled through physical and mental obstacles that would discourage the weak hearted on their climb to the top of college volleyball and on the cusp of a professional future.
The seniors from Glendale, Arizona had to overcome the challenges of two heart surgeries for Mckenna Witt on top of the uncertainties in their volleyball careers.
Volleyball began in 8th grade for the Witts, one year later than their preference.
“We didn’t make the team in 7th grade,” Mckenna Witt said.
Could this be another Michael Jordan-esc story in the making? It might be.
In three years at Mountain Ridge High School, the Witts excelled at indoor volleyball and earned scholarships at UC Riverside their junior year. However, the twins had to search for other options when a change in the coaching staff lead them to decommit.
“We didn’t feel like it was the right culture or the right fit for us anymore,” Madison said. “We wanted to pursue other options.”
That’s when Arizona coach Steve Walker came into the picture. He brought the Witts to The University of Arizona on a campus visit in 2013, with no program to show them.
“We didn’t have our facility built yet; we didn’t have girls to meet,” Mckenna said of the visit. “We really liked our coaching staff, so it was ultimately just the school as a whole, being offered a scholarship and the coaches.”
“We loved everyone we met in academics as well,” Madison said.
From the visit, the Witts were ready to take on the first of many challenges in their collegiate careers at Arizona.
“It’s funny because when we got here we didn’t even play the sport of beach volleyball,” Madison said. “Here you have to be successful in every single skill to win games. When we got here, Steve started us off right from the beginning just learning how to even throw the ball. That took much longer than it should have. It took a lot of patience and a lot of time developing those skills.”
Just as the twins were settling into college life as freshman, volleyball became secondary when Mckenna had the first of her two heart surgeries. The second was this past fall.
According to Mayo Clinic, your maximum heart rate should be your age subtracted from 220. In Mckenna's case, her maximum rate should be about 198 beats per minute, and it would be unnatural to surpass 200 bpm.
“During games it got up to 250 bpm,” Mckenna said. “I had to go through a series of tests and ended up deciding to go into ablation, which means they basically burn a spot in your heart that’s sending off extra electrical activity to get it to stop firing so fast.”
Despite the surgeries, Mckenna hasn’t completely recovered.
“I’ve had a couple of episodes since, just randomly,” she said. “I probably won’t do surgery again because it’s just kinda defeating. After the second time I was like, ‘you know what, I’m just gonna learn how to deal with this and pray about it and go from there.’”
The source of her heart’s rapid beating is still unknown, but Mckenna manages the symptoms by taking care of her body. This includes staying hydrated and eating the right foods.
“It’s been a long four years and I feel like when you’ve been in a program a long time, there’s going to be a lot of mental struggles that ultimately make you stronger, and a better volleyball player and a better person,” Madison said.
Through everything, the Witts have become a stronger team. In four years, they’ve found confidence and trust in their skills and each other. As freshman, they were losing close games and finished with a 13-15 overall record. Over the next two years, they improved tremendously and had 24 wins last year that took them to the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championships.
“Their first couple years they really gave themselves to me and the staff and allowed us to make significant changes in their technique,” Walker said. “They’ve been good role models and ambassadors for the program and the university and the sport itself. It’s amazing were coming close to wrapping up four years of it.”
And it is through their relationship that they have overcome some their greatest challenges.
“I admire how strong Mckenna is and determined and willing,” Madison said. “She pushes me when I need it or supports me when I’m struggling.”
Mckenna asserted that she is more of the disciplinary of the two, but equally admires her sister.
“Madison is extremely patient and gracious when it comes to me making errors,” Mckenna said. “She knows when I need support when I’m feeling a little less confident. She’s there to step in and give me some grace and some more confidence when I need it.”
The twins, which Walker described as “one of the more premier pairs teams in the country,” have shown that, together, they are fearless, and the physical setbacks won’t stop them from achieving success at the highest level. Despite the odds, the Witts joined the small percent of collegiate athletes that continue onto the professional level when they qualified for the AVP last summer and played in the San Francisco Open.
The accomplishment came with great difficulty when the twins were met with a surprise in their first match: their opponents were the Olympians April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings.
“It was a fun welcome to the AVP,” Mckenna Witt said. “We were a little frazzled like ‘whoa,’ but it was really fun.”
They lost the match 21-10, 21-14, but said they did better than they expected. Ross and Walsh went on to win the tournament.
The Witt’s ultimate goal is to one day join the 113 Wildcats who have competed in the Olympics.
Before their career at Arizona sees its completion, the twins have three goals: go to nationals, go to the pair championships and, of course, take down Arizona State.
“We’re so excited. It’s always fun to play our rivals from ASU,” Mckenna said. “We couldn’t be more excited to showcase what we’ve been working on. We’re gonna bring it.”
Next year, the twins will return to indoor volleyball in a fifth year at Cal Baptist University on scholarship. During this time, Madison will get her masters in communication, and Mckenna a masters in kinesiology.
After four years, the Witts are nothing short of gracious for every opportunity they’ve been provided in building the foundation for Arizona’s top ten beach volleyball program.
“We had a really good experience here,” Madison said. “I want girls to come through here and grow as not only volleyball players, but as people, and learn about themselves. To learn about who they want to be in the future.”
And now it’s up to freshman like Olivia Hallaran, who Walker compared to the Witts in a postgame interview, to carry on the Witt’s standards of hard work and an eagerness to learn in a program looking for many prosperous years ahead.
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