ABOVE IT ALL By Dana Rettke

As soon as the Delta flight attendant noticed my predicament, she came over bearing sympathy and a promise.

I’d just scrunched my 6-foot-8 frame into the narrow middle seat and was trying to get mentally prepared for the upcoming 13-hour flight from Los Angeles to Shanghai, China.

It’s a crazy-long trip regardless, but the idea of spending it contorted between two strangers – with little to no room to stretch out – seemed particularly cruel no matter how many Netflix downloads I’d be able to watch.

I’d arrived in LA that mid-May morning after a four-hour flight from Chicago to catch up with fellow members of the USA Collegiate National Team. We were headed to China for a five-match, 10-day volleyball tour that would take us to Shanghai, Jiashan, Pinghu City and Beijing.

I was pumped for my first visit to Asia, for making new friends, for representing my country and the Wisconsin volleyball program, but there was nothing at all appealing about squeezing into a middle seat for the longest flight of my life.

Before I got completely settled, though, one of the flight attendants came over and vowed that if there was an aisle seat available after everyone was on board, she’d move me.

I can’t begin to say how thankful I was that she found one.

In my world, you can never have enough leg room.

. . .

I’m not your typical 19-year-old woman.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average height for women in the United States is 5-4.

That was me in the fourth grade.

I was 6-1 in the seventh grade and measured 6-4 when I enrolled at Riverside-Brookfield (Illinois) High School.

By the time I was a sophomore, I was 6-7.

In my world, you can never have enough leg room

By the time I came to Madison to be a middle blocker for the Badgers in January of 2017, I was 6-8, making me one of the tallest volleyball players in Division I.

I have company. Rachael Kramer of Florida and Merete Lutz, formerly of Stanford, are also 6-8 in a sport where most players are between 5-10 and 6-2.

For all its labels and challenges, I love being tall and with every passing day I become more aware of what a blessing it is and how fortunate I am.

Looking back, I grew up in a special, wonderful, accepting environment.

I wasn’t bullied as a kid, online or otherwise.

I wasn’t teased nor was I singled out for being different even though I literally stand out in a crowd.

I think there are some good reasons for that.

My parents, John and Kathy, never made an issue of my height. They never sat me down and said, “Look, you’re different.’’ They never sat me down and had one of those kids-can-be-mean talks. They never had me stand with my back to a door frame and measure my growth with a pen mark.

They just loved me and supported my many activities and interests as I matured. I took part in basketball, soccer, softball, swimming and track. I also took dance lessons in jazz and tap.

The way I grew up, I never really realized that I was much different than anyone else.

I attended kindergarten and elementary school with the same 19 kids. I grew up with them and we were like family. Two of my best friends to this day, Molly Gates and Rachel Magee, were part of that group.

It was the same thing when I got to middle school and high school. I knew a lot of kids from doing sports in my town and around the area.

I never thought I was different, honestly.

I knew I was taller than everyone, of course, but it wasn’t something I was insecure about.

Until now, I never really realized how lucky I was to have that kind of emotional support because I know, sadly, that people get bullied for stuff like that all the time.

It helped immensely that people accepted me for who I was when I was younger, so it built my confidence and helped me become the person I am today.

I can’t say thank you enough to my parents and the people who raised my friends. They’re awesome.

Growing up I remember hearing girls that are not nearly as tall as me say, “I’m just too tall. I hate it.’’ I don’t understand why those girls felt that way.

I was talking to Wisconsin volleyball campers about this recently. They were asking, “Do you have a boyfriend?’’ I was like “No, I don’t.’’ And they’re like, “That makes sense because no one here is tall enough for you.’’ I’m like, “You know it’s OK to talk to shorter guys, right?’’

I think it all wraps around a confidence and how you really view yourself. I could take myself very negatively. I just choose not to. Why would I do that?

We live in a society that’s very much based on first impressions, so you want to present yourself as someone who is, quote-unquote, perfect. When you post a picture on social media, you’re going to make sure you look your best.

I think a lot of girls just worry about that and leave their personality out of it. I think we need to preach more about being good people and not caring so much about what the outside is all about.

I definitely want other girls to be confident because once you have confidence, you can do anything, I believe. It doesn’t matter how tall you are or how skinny you are or what your hair looks like or what color it is. That stuff just doesn’t matter.

I want girls to be more confident and I’m seeing that more and more as I become a role model. They look up to me because of volleyball, but also because I’m a confident person and I think I present myself in a way they like.

I definitely want other girls to be confident because once you have confidence, you can do anything, I believe

. . .

My trip overseas taught me a lot about presence and patience. The fact we’re Americans made us quite an attraction to begin with. That women in China average 5-2 and the men 5-6 made our team stand out even more.

The social norms are very different there. Usually in America if you’re going to take a picture of somebody, you’re going to hide it a little bit. In China they’ll come right up and put the camera in your face and say, “Smile.’’

There was a moment when we were in Shanghai, taking a picture of the skyline. We were standing there counting down “One, two, three” when, all of a sudden, a crowd of 30 or so people came and swarmed our area and were taking pictures of us.

There was another time when we walked into a Starbucks and everyone took their phones out and were videoing us and taking pictures.

In the beginning it wasn’t that bad because we knew we were going to get that a lot on the trip, but towards the end it got to be a little much. Ten days of that can get a little annoying.

I have no idea what they’re going to do with all those pictures.

. . .

Of course, being 6-8 comes with some issues.

The hardest part for me is probably shopping, especially for dresses. Normal clothes don’t fit super-well, but there are some tall shops by my house that make shopping fairly easy, if a bit pricey. My favorite clothing stores are Dry Goods, American Eagle, Long Tall Sally and TJ Maxx.

My shower head at home is too short for me, but the ones in our locker room at the Field House are just the right size, which is great.

I’ve never purposely sat in the back of a college lecture hall so others could see. For one thing, I don’t feel obligated. For another, our coach, Kelly Sheffield, has a team rule that we must sit in the first three rows.

I’m pretty easy going when it comes to questions about my height, but there have been some doozies.

People have asked me if I can dunk a basketball even after I tell them I don’t play basketball. For the record, no, I can’t.

It’s not a question, but a statement I get a lot is, “Wow, you’re tall.” Like it’s a news flash or something.

I’m entering my fourth semester at Wisconsin and I’ve not had any judgmental moments in class or on campus about my size. I know people are thinking it, but they don’t really voice it and I’m totally fine with that.

Kelly’s done a good job of being supportive, but a lot of it just comes from me. I’m just not wired to think I need to be a certain way to be accepted in society.

I think I own my height very well. I don’t shrink down when people say something about it; I stand even taller. And I love wearing heels.

I believe that everyone needs to own themselves because once you start doing that you’re going to feel so much better about yourself and about the way you look at life.

. . .

Once I got back home from China, my thoughts really began to turn toward this season. We have our annual intra-squad scrimmage on Aug. 18 and our first match is Aug. 24.

Our home-opening match, with Texas on Sept. 1, is going to be special. It’s the first time any of us – including Kelly and his staff – have experienced the Field House with fans sitting in the upper deck.

Our amazing fans have bought more than 6,400 season tickets – a program record – and we’re anxious to play in front of our first sellout crowd of 7,052.

We expect to be better than we were in 2017 when we made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, after finishing seventh in the Big Ten Conference. We had seven freshmen and some key injuries to deal with a year ago and that was a lot to handle. Our record didn’t reflect on how well we really did.

We have a mentality that we’re going to work our butts off and we’re going to make this happen.

A year ago at this time there was still a question if I would redshirt. I’m glad I didn’t because of all the valuable experience I got.

I’ve definitely become a better player, but I think personally I’ve become a lot more competitive. I’ve become a better speaker. I’ve become a better role model for other girls. I’m a lot more determined just to be the best I can be in a lot of things.

I’m more driven now than I ever was.

I was reminded recently about the movie “The Greatest Showman.” It’s about P.T. Barnum and the world-famous circus he created featuring people with unusual physical traits.

It’s about owning who you are, about finding joy, self-esteem and happiness within.

I’m more driven now than I ever was

I thought it was awesome and inspiring, a message we don’t see enough.

I see my height as a gift.

I don’t think it matters how tall you are or how short you are as long as you work hard. You can do whatever you want.

I wouldn’t want any other life.

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