Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Maryland volleyball coach Tim Horsmon. This version has been corrected.
During her senior year of high school, Adreené Elliott got into a car accident. She ran a red light near her home town in North Carolina and was struck broadside. Repairing the dents cost money she didn’t have, so the future Maryland volleyball star tapped into an old childhood talent and started drawing portraits for $30 a pop.
“And people really did buy it,” she said.
Elliott is artistically gifted, but the Maryland volleyball player is many other things, too, and it is through the aggregate that Elliott defines herself.
She is a devout Christian. An aspiring diplomat. A hopeful Olympian. A secretary, a treasurer and a volunteer at assisted-living facilities. A 6-foot-3 human pogo stick who has been blessed with the ability to jump very high and spike volleyballs very hard.
Her mother tells her to stop being Superwoman and create time for rest, just like everything else. Elliott says why rest? Only so many hours in the day.
“There are so many things that catch her eye or things she hears that she thinks she can help,” Maryland Coach Tim Horsmon said. “I don’t know if you’ll ever keep up with Adreené.”
Said teammate Mary Cushman, “She dreams like you wouldn’t believe.”
Avis Williams-Smith wanted her children to be well rounded, to try many things before settling on one extracurricular activity, so Elliott played soccer, piano and basketball from age 7 through the 10th grade. She danced jazz, tap and ballet, too, and her relatives called her “terremoto,” which means earthquake in a number of languages, because as a baby she was “into everything and tearing up everything,” her mother said.
At Maryland, she majors in economics, serves as the secretary for the Student-Athlete Advisory Council and is the treasurer of the honor society. She was an all-ACC freshman in 2011, the team’s highest-percentage hitter in 2012 and, as her junior season wraps up this weekend at Virginia Tech and Virginia, is second on the team in kills and probably first in self-awareness.
“And golly, my character since I’ve been here, I didn’t realize how many holes I had in it until I went through this process,” she says. “This is not done, but there’s definitely no place I’d rather be. I have a lot more learning to do, but I’m excited for it. I learned to be a fighter and enjoy competition.”
Back inside Comcast Center, her fellow Terrapins trickled in for practice as Elliott fiddled with her wristwatch.
“I wish I was a wiser person,” she said.
What college athlete talks like this? None that Horsmon knows. Cushman neither. On road trips, Elliott often wakes up before breakfast to send e-mails and finish homework. In the locker room, her conversations switch at random, from classes to dreams to, last year, the time she walked along campus and started wondering what a particular squirrel was thinking.
“She would see things that no one else notices because we’re too busy trying to get somewhere,” her mother said. “But Adreené will see the moment. She’s in the moment.”
Elliott was a second-team Under Armour all-American at Mount Tabor High School, but to her family good grades always meant more. After Maryland offered her a scholarship, just one of 12 available on the roster, Williams-Smith told Horsmon thanks but no thanks. Elliott would be going to an Ivy League school; Harvard, Yale and Cornell had all expressed interest.
“It took a little to get her mom sold on the idea of doing this,” Horsmon said. “She’s been so involved in so many other things, then the academic side was so important to her.”
Elliott’s breakthrough on the court arrived last spring, when she spent three days at a tournament in Dallas that also served as U.S. national team tryouts. On the final day, one coach told her to hit the ball as hard as she possibly could.
Because Elliott was afraid of making mistakes and plays with a high-percentage, low-risk style, she first asked for permission.
“I was killing it,” she says now, admitting that “great players take risks.” After Dallas, she saw herself working toward becoming one, with Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Summer Olympics the ultimate goal.
Elliott hopes volleyball can increase her national profile so she can promote change in underdeveloped third-world countries. She wants to be an NCAA all-American and an all-ACC selection, in that order of priority, and wants to reach the dean’s list again. On the court, the tentativeness is fading away, but sometimes Elliott asks her teammates to hold her accountable for taking plays off.
Over winter break, she wants to start her art business again, and next summer she hopes to sell portraits while training for the 2016 Olympics. Maybe take business classes, too. She also hopes to get an internship, maybe in finance or at the World Bank, even though her mother advised her to hold off.
“I’m going to get one without telling her,” Elliott whispered, as if it were a secret and her mother could hear.