When Allison Aldrich was 7, a surgeon cut off her right leg, just below the knee.
After the chemo and the healing and a new leg made of carbon fiber and silicone, the second-grader from Schuyler went back to her old life.
She played T-ball and soccer and basketball and, once or twice a year, she got a new and longer leg.
She went back to dance lessons, too, although she had to give up her dream of being a ballerina since she could no longer point her toes and pirouette.
“My parents and I decided to never let it bother me,” says Allison, 24, who lives in Lincoln now and works in Wilber.
“Never be pitied for it.”
The Wilber-Clatonia P.E. teacher and head volleyball coach had her toenails painted Thursday morning.
Her clothes were on her bed, waiting to be packed.
On Friday, she leaves for Europe. First to Amsterdam for a week and then on to London for the 2012 Paralympics.
Her sitting volleyball team took the bronze in Athens in 2004. Four years later, they earned a silver in Beijing.
She’s excited to see her teammates -- they’ll rendezvous at the Houston airport -- and athletes she’s gotten close to at past games.
She also wants to win.
“Our hope is to get gold.”
* * *
Late Tuesday afternoon, Allison is tossing volleyballs into the air, one after another after another.
It’s the second day of practice for the Class C-1 Wolverines, who went 1 and 28 last year.
Allison throws balls, a player hits the mark. And misses it.
And hits it.
“There you go, good.”
“There you go.”
Allison, 5-foot-10, played volleyball in high school at Schuyler but gave it up for golf her senior year and was on Nebraska Wesleyan University's team while getting her education degree.
She was inspired to teach by her own phys ed teacher in high school.
“He really pushed me. I wanted to teach kids what he taught me: Anything is possible.”
At school, students ask the second-year teacher about the prosthetic. They want to feel it, want her to take it off.
She doesn’t mind.
“I want to show them they don’t have to set limits. If I can do this with one leg, you can do it with two.”
Last year, she encouraged a boy who’d lost his leg to try a sport.
“The first time I saw him wrestle, I cried. I felt like a proud parent.”
* * *
Nikki Watts met Allison at a Cinco de Mayo party in 2011.
On Oct. 13, Allison will be the maid-of-honor at her wedding.
They both were out of college, moving away from high school friendships, starting their “big girl” jobs.
“We clicked,” Nikki said.
Allison was wearing capris that night, and Nikki hadn’t paid any attention to her leg until dinner.
“I heard her say something and it sounded like, ‘my potato leg.’”
“She was like, no, my fake leg.”
Nikki introduced Allison to her boyfriend -- a roommate of Nikki’s fiancé. They do couple things together. Dinner, movies, hanging out.
“She is the strongest girl I know,” Nikki said. “Mentally, physically, she’s just very strong -- and she’s got such a good heart.”
* * *
More than 4,000 athletes from 165 countries will be in London next week, staying in Olympic Village, playing at the same venues their Olympic counterparts filled earlier this month.
The U.S. Team will field 227 athletes. They will compete in wheelchair basketball, tennis, swimming, track and field, archery, sailing, table tennis, wheelchair rugby, fencing and a dozen more.
And Allison’s sport, sitting volleyball.
A sitting volleyball player in Omaha taught her to play more than eight years ago, after reading Allison’s story in the paper.
She fell in love with it. And she was good at it.
The sport is what it sounds like. Players scoot on their behinds, propel themselves with their arms as the ball flies at them at speeds up to 40 mph.
The court is a quarter the size of a regulation court and the net is 41 inches off the ground, about as high as a tennis net.
“Your butt gets sore, your back gets sore,” said Allison, a middle hitter.
“Your body is not made to play this sport.”
* * *
Last week, Nikki helped organize a going-away party for Allison at Brewsky’s. Food and cake and presents.
They made a huge banner: “Good Luck in London, No. 11!”
“I was a cheerleader in high school,” Nikki said. “I’m cheering for her now.”
Wednesday afternoon -- Allison’s last day at work for nearly a month -- the school held a going-away party in the auditorium.
They showed clips from past Paralympics, students gave her cards, the band played the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
“When it was over, the kids all chanted U.S.A., U.S.A., it was nice,” Allison said.
Competition starts with three rounds of pool play.
They play China first, their toughest competition.
“I’m excited. It’s like, ‘Way to get the games started.’”
Thursday, she's at a nail salon.
She puts her toes up on a stool and new polish is painted on both feet.
Allison has another leg at home. It’s her athletic leg. It has more flex, torque in the ankle for running or golfing. She’s not taking it to London.
This one works fine for volleyball, she says as blue polish is painted on her big toes and adorned with white stars.
And then white polish is painted on the other four, striped with red so that when she wiggles her toes it looks like a tiny flag is blowing in the wind.
“I call this my pretty leg.”