Return of the Mak: Washington No Stranger to Adversity

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By Joey Johnston

Last month, USF volleyball player Makayla Washington celebrated her 22nd birthday. She’s young enough to be carefree, but mature enough to know that life has twists and turns, many of them unfair.

“My mom always told me you can’t wait for life not to be hard to be happy,” Washington said. “So I go through life with that mindset. I firmly believe that God won’t give me more than I can handle. I don’t say, ‘Why me?’ No matter what you’re faced with, you keep going. That’s what we’re challenged with in our lives.”

Washington, whose Bulls (6-10, 0-4) will face East Carolina in Friday night’s home American Athletic Conference opener at the Corral, has been faced with more challenges than most.

Four years ago, her father, Anthony Washington, died suddenly while battling skin cancer due to complications from diabetes. He was 43. Her father was a track and field athlete at Florida State University and he met her mother, LaToya, while she played volleyball at FSU. Together, they taught Washington about how to work hard and overcome adversity as an athlete. You have to be prepared for anything, they told her.

She was hardly prepared for life without her father.

“Sometimes, life stinks,” Washington said. “Sometimes, it’s not pretty. It’s not always what you see on Instagram.”

At least she had volleyball, the sport where she made a name for herself at Tallahassee Leon High School. But that, too, has made for an arduous journey.

Washington sat out her first year at USF because of severe stress fractures in her left leg, where a steel rod was surgically inserted.

Then last year, a much-anticipated time following the COVID disruptions and a shortened spring season, Washington felt it was finally her time.

Early in the season’s first match against Rutgers, Washington went up for a hit, but landed awkwardly on her right leg.South Florida Bulls during a volleyball game against the University of Central Florida Knights at the Yuengling Center on October 13, 2021. (Mary Holt/South Florida Athletics)

“I looked at my trainer and she was like, ‘You never know… it could be a bone bruise,'” Washington said. “I was hoping. But it wasn’t a bone bruise.”

Her right meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament were shattered, ending her season and beginning a rehabilitation process that kept her off the court until this October.

“I feel like I’m being held together by wire,” Washington said. “Maybe I just need to put myself in bubble wrap. Maybe that would make it easier.

“It was definitely hard, but the hardest part was having to watch and not being able to contribute. I tried to be the best cheerleader I could possibly be, but it hurt not being to play. I just had to be strong and wait for my time.”

USF coach Jolene Shepardson said she has gained a deep appreciation for Washington’s mental and physical strength.

“She had already gone through a major injury and then she had the absolute bad luck of something else happening to her,” Shepardson said. “My heart broke for her and our team, but you try to see the good in it. Some younger players got to see some action. She was still a great leader for us and I think she used that time to develop herself in other ways.”

Washington writes music. She plays the piano. She also has experience with the clarinet and saxophone during her time with the Leon High band. She usually performs alone — or before a small, carefully selected audience — because her songs are often personal and expressive.

If at first you don’t succeed,

They say to try again,

But once I failed the first time,

I feel like I failed within,

There used to be this part of me,

That gets under my skin

But they say it’s not where you’re going,

It’s about where you’ve been.

“That was after my father died,” Washington said. “It was part of my grieving process. I’m not good with my emotions outwardly. Music is a way to connect with them and get some feelings released. For me, it’s a way to express exactly what I’m feeling.”

Washington, the middle of three daughters, wrote a song about her younger sister for her birthday. It was a surprise and it overwhelmed her sister.

“I got emotional when I saw her reaction,” Washington said. “It was something I created and she responded to it. To me, that is a very special moment when you can create something like that for someone.

“I’m kind of shy with my music. I don’t let a lot of people in. It’s something personal to me.”

Washington said volleyball is another way she can express her emotions. She said there’s nothing more exciting than winning a rally and celebrating with teammates.South Florida Bulls during a game against the University of North Florida Ospreys at the Corral in Tampa, FL.

Volleyball has mostly been her life and a huge influence on the family. Her mother, a lobbyist, coaches a travel volleyball program in Tallahassee. Her older sister played at Faulkner University in Alabama and her younger sister also played as a setter at Leon High.

Washington has already earned her bachelor’s degree and is doing master’s work with plans on becoming a physician’s assistant.

“I’m trying to strive and become the best person I can be,” said Washington, who is USF’s Student Athlete Advisory Council president. “People ask me about the injury and how hard it was. Actually, it might be the fifth-hardest thing I’ve been through. Bodies heal. Bodies get better.

“It’s a little different when you lose someone like your father. As hard as it was and still is, the message is always to keep going. No matter what life gives you, keep going. That would have been his message. That would be my message to anyone else.

“No matter what you’re faced with, you’ve got to keep going.”

About USF Volleyball

Head coach Jolene Shepardson enters her third season at the helm of her alma mater in 2022. Named head coach on Jan. 8, 2020, Shepardson led the Bulls’ program to its last conference championship and NCAA tournament appearance as a student-athlete in 2002. USF made its last postseason appearance in 2018, posting 20 wins and appearing in the NIVC. USF Volleyball has made seven NCAA Tournament appearances and won 12 conference titles since its inception in 1972 and is entering its 50th campaign in 2021-22. The Bulls play in The Corral (1,000), adjacent to the Yuengling Center on the USF campus.

Be sure to follow USF women’s volleyball on social media (Twitter/Instagram/Facebook) and visit GoUSFBulls.com for the most up-to-date information.


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