By Felisa Cardenas
Killeen Daily Herald
Puerto Rican Olympic volleyball star Debora Seilhamer paid a visit to students at Oak Creek Academy on Friday afternoon.
Puerto Rico made history in 2016 when the women’s national volleyball team qualified for its first Olympic games.
Seilhamer was a part of that history-making national team but her road to the Olympics started years ago.
She was like most young girls who want to be just like their big sister. Anything her sister did, she wanted to do just like her.
Seilhamer’s sister played volleyball, and while she had tried many sports over the years, volleyball was the game she fell in love with.
“My dad always supported me in sport,” Seilhamer said. “He played sports, but he always taught me to use sports to get my education.
“That’s exactly what I did.”
The 5-foot-5 Seilhamer plays libero, a defense only position in volleyball,
“I’m pretty short; most volleyball players are over 6-foot tall,” Seilhamer said, “but I play a position that allows me to be short, so there’s no limitations.”
Seilhamer used her love and passion for volleyball to get a full scholarship to the University of Southern California. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she went on to attend law school.
“There are players that are capable of living off the sport,” Seilhamer said. “They make millions of dollars, but that’s not the case for every athlete so it is important to make the time to do your studying and get your degree.
“Make a career beside the sport.”
Although she retired from the Puerto Rican national team after last year’s Olympic Games, Seilhamer still plays professionally in Puerto Rico.
One key to success for her was learning to balance her life and her education.
“I went to law school down in Puerto Rico and that was all during the day time, and then at night I went to practice with my volleyball team,” Seilhamer said.
“Yeah, it was tough. You have very little time for yourself but I saw that if you sacrifice a couple of years, in the long run, it has a lot of benefits.”
Now she said when she isn’t playing volleyball she works as a lawyer in government.
Olympian in Killeen
After Hurricane Maria struck, Seilhamer’s brother put together a relief fund event, United Puerto Rico and Mi Patria Productions Rock for Puerto Rico Concert on Saturday.
Knowing she would be in town for the benefit concert, Alyssa Pena thought Seilhamer would be the perfect guest at Oak Creek.
“I feel like these kids, they appear to have limitations,” Pena said, “and with Debora, since she’s so small I wanted just to show them that, ‘yeah, I’m 5-5, but I’m also an Olympic player.’”
She pitched the idea to Dr. Tracy Hanson, founder and head of Oak Creek.
“She thought it was just a fantastic idea,” Pena said.
“Especially a lot of our kids are females, are little girls who look up to role models like Debora, so I just thought it would be really great to show somebody put in a situation that, upon their appearance, it looks like she has limitations but clearly limitations didn’t stop her from anything.”
For Seilhamer, the opportunity was one she didn’t want to pass up.
When her brother’s wife “told me about this opportunity, it’s obviously something I’ve always done for the kids in Puerto Rico so I was glad to do it for the people of Killeen.
“It’s a great opportunity to be here.”
Friday at Oak Creek
Friday afternoon started with a question-and-answer session and gave the students from Oak Creek the opportunity to ask Seilhamer about anything volleyball related.
One student asked when she started playing volleyball, while another student wanted to know when was the last time she played.
Another student asked which volleyball player she looked up to, besides her sister.
And yet another student inquired about how much experience she had playing volleyball on the Nintendo Wii.
“Just listening to their questions and how they stayed on topic,” Pena said, “some of these kids are limited to two verbal exchanges and they were engaging in the conversations without being prompted.
“It’s just ... they’re knocking down milestones.”
After all their questions had been answered, Seilhamer taught some of the younger kids the fundamentals of passing and setting a volleyball.
For the older students with more volleyball knowledge, they split into teams to take on the Olympic athlete.
“I was just so proud of them to see all of them come out of their comfort level,” Pena said. “It was just amazing how they all came out and got involved and were actually interested in this.”
For Seilhamer, giving back to the children in the community is part of the job description for her.
“At one point I was in their shoes wanting to learn more,” she said. “Somebody took the time to teach me so I’m doing the same thing for the kids because I think it’s important for them to have the experience and opportunity to learn the sport.
“Maybe there’s an Olympian among us.”