Watch Aspen Green play volleyball for the first time, and you’d never know anything is out of the ordinary.
The 5-foot-10 Lincoln North Star senior is as comfortable pounding kills from her outside hitter position as she is taking serve receive or digging a big attack from the back row. It’s why a number of area colleges are recruiting Green, a second-year starter for the Navigators who spent her freshman and sophomore seasons playing for Parker Lutheran in Colorado.
But look closely, however, and you’ll notice Green’s left foot turns in just a little and her left leg is noticeably smaller than her right. She walks with a slight limp, and it appears she’s on her tip-toes on her left foot as her heel just barely taps the ground as she steps, if it touches at all.
Green has never known anything else. At 18 months old when her foot was severely turned in as she was learning to walk, doctors figured out that she had a stroke while still in her mother’s womb.
She had surgery as a toddler to extend her Achilles tendon and another surgery on her left calf on her 10th birthday.
It's enough of a disability that she would likely be eligible to try out for the national sitting volleyball team if she desired.
“Doctors have told me if I had my stroke after I was born, it would’ve been much harder for me,” said Green, who was involved with dance, basketball and track when she was younger before settling on volleyball in high school. “To me this is just natural. It’s never stopped me from doing anything.”
She’s constantly doing physical therapy on her left leg, trying to increase both strength and flexibility. Green also gets regular massages on it to keep the muscles loose.
At the end of a long volleyball tournament, like last weekend’s LPS Classic, she can feel it in her lower left leg.
“I trip a lot, and all the girls make fun of me,” Green said, laughing.
Because she’s conquered her disability, Green has learned to have fun with it. When she lived in Colorado, members of her club volleyball team called her “Strokee.”
“I grew up with those girls, so it didn’t bother me at all,” she said. “I thought it was kind of funny.”
Only volleyball fans who know the nuances of the game would recognize that Green’s approach to the ball on her left-side attacks “is a little funky,” as North Star coach Kristi Nelson-Hitz described it. She jumps off her right foot “because I don’t have the strength to go off my left like you’re supposed to,” Green said.
“She can get away with it because she jumps so well and she has such a fast arm swing,” Nelson-Hitz said. “Most people don’t know anything’s wrong until someone tells them.”
And for Green, that’s both surprising and satisfying at the same time.
“I feel like it’s obvious to everyone, so it makes me feel good when someone tells me they never notice it at first,” Green said. “It means all my hard work is paying off.”
Green moved to Lincoln in the summer of 2012 after her mother, former Nebraska track All-American Rhonda Blanford-Green, started her job as the executive director of the Nebraska School Activities Association. Her father, John, is still in Colorado coaching pole vault and getting their house ready to sell.
Her father is a former Doane standout football and track athlete who went on to play in the NFL with Green Bay and Denver. He’s been a long-time high school football and track coach and athletic administrator in Colorado.
“I’ve been around athletics my whole life. I’ve always been involved in some way whether it’s participating or helping my mom out with state championships,” Aspen said. “They’ve (her parents) pushed me the right way, the kind that challenges but also encourages you.”
Green is a big reason why the Class A No. 5 Navigators are 14-4 with seven three-set victories going into Thursday night’s home match against No. 8 Grand Island. After Tuesday’s road win at Norfolk, Green leads the team in kills (156) and is tied for second in digs (112).
“Aspen is always upbeat, and that’s why she’s a great teammate. She’s also very competitive, but she funnels that the right way,” Nelson-Hitz said. “The kids want to see the ball go to her when the game is on the line. When she gets mad and you think she’s physically spent, she comes up with a play that just lifts the team.”