Faced with multiple physical setbacks throughout her volleyball career, Miranda Leibold had every opportunity to give up or become bitter. Instead, the recent Tabor College graduate bravely faced each new challenge with faith and came back stronger.
“I just don’t think negative in any situation,” Leibold said. “If you’re negative, it just makes everything worse. It doesn’t ever make it better. But saying something positive or smiling at somebody or just enjoying every moment that you get to live—everything’s a blessing.”
Considering Leibold’s health journey—from the removal of a rib to major back surgery—it’s a wonder she was able to play volleyball at all. But her positivity and perseverance, strengthened by faith, enabled her to compete more quickly than doctors imagined.
“I just never really thought of quitting,” she said. “It was just overcoming another obstacle to get back to what you love doing. I was in tune with God, I think, too, because I was always like, ‘‘Here we go, God. Do whatever you’re going to do.’ And he never really told me to stop.”
A multi-sport athlete, Leibold has persevered through a number of physical setbacks, beginning in middle school when she suffered a head injury during a basketball game.
After she had stolen the ball, she said her opponent pushed her down, causing her head to bounce first off the floor and then into a brick wall. The trauma caused bleeding in the brain and memory loss, forcing her to quit basketball, but she continued with volleyball and softball.
In high school at Andover Central, Leibold said she underwent two life-threatening surgeries for a condition called Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, which involves compression of nerves or blood vessels between the collarbone and first rib.
“There’s not enough room, so it starts ripping your nerves and arteries slowly and creates a blood clot,” Leibold said. “I had that my junior year in the worst case that anybody had ever seen.”
In June 2012, Leibold went to Texas for surgery, where doctors removed her first rib and part of her pectoralis minor muscle. Leibold said she was told recovery could last up to nine months, but she healed in just five weeks.
Less than a year later, Leibold began noticing some of the same symptoms, this time caused by scar tissue buildup. She went in for surgery a second time in April 2013; doctors removed all of her pectoralis minor and half of her pectoralis major.
Recovery could have taken up to 11 months, but Leibold said she returned in three weeks and was able to play in the state softball tournament in May.
“I knew as long as I did (physical therapy), it was out of my control, so whatever was going to happen, God had it,” she said. “I just had a sense in me that I was coming back. I had that peace from God.”
She had discovered a passion for volleyball the previous year and joined a club team, through which she learned to know Tabor head coach Amy Ratzlaff. Upon Leibold’s graduation in 2013, she chose to pursue volleyball at Tabor.
A week before she arrived, Leibold learned she had a protruding disc in her back, which, she later learned, was caused by degenerative disc disease, something typically associated with aging.
“Basically, your disc disintegrates slowly and there’s nothing you can do about it,” she said. “I was the youngest case.”
Leibold said the painful condition pinched 30 nerves, but she played through her sophomore season at Tabor in that condition, functioning with the aid of narcotic pain medication. She played a majority of minutes on junior varsity those first two years.
“It was rough, but (it) got me through,” she said. “Looking back, (I) probably shouldn’t have done that.”
In October of her sophomore year, doctors decided Leibold needed spinal fusion surgery for her vertebrae.
She went in for surgery in December. Leibold said an incision was made in her abdomen and doctors sliced through her abdominal muscles to reach her spine.
“That was pretty painful,” she said. “I was in a back brace for eight weeks, and I couldn’t twist, turn or lift anything more than 5 pounds. They told me that my recovery would be at least a year if not two.”
“After about three and a half months, I was fully healed and was able to come back to sports,” she said, adding that she participated in volleyball workouts with the team that spring. Her back motion was not what it once was, but she made adaptations to cope.
“Obviously, I don’t have the movement that I had beforehand,” she said. “If I try to arch my back or try to do something, my back will just give.”
Leibold’s varsity playing time in 2015 increased dramatically her junior season at Tabor. She played in 132 sets and recorded 80 kills while hitting .143. Tabor went 23-12 that year, losing to eventual-champion Ottawa in the KCAC tournament semifinals.
“At the very beginning of the year, Coach was like, ‘I know you just had back surgery, but do you mind playing varsity and JV?’ so I played all the matches every time, the same exact position. That was super fun, being on two different teams.”
After her junior season, Leibold underwent knee surgery.
“I had a large bone spur, the biggest that (my doctor had) seen under a kneecap,” she said.
Because of damage to ligaments on either side of her knee, Leibold began wearing a knee brace to hold her kneecap in place.
Leibold returned to Tabor for her senior campaign in 2016; halfway through the season, she said she began experiencing shoulder pain.
“My whole rotator cuff muscle was shut down,” she said. “Super rare, I guess. Nobody had ever really seen it. They told me I had a partial rotator cuff tear and then a possible labral tear. They didn’t really know how to reactivate it.”
She added, “There’s only one other documented case of a rotator cuff shutdown, so the information on how to fix it is very scarce.”
Leibold made adjustments to her game and played through the condition.
“I figured out how to swing and do everything without it working,” she said. “It was hard blocking because I didn’t have that control because that rotator cuff is shut down. I guess I hit really funky.”
Leibold played in 138 sets and recorded 234 kills (1.7 per set) while hitting .251. Tabor advanced to post-season play for the first time in program history, defeating Wayland Baptist in the opening round to earn a spot as one of 32 teams to compete in pool play in Sioux City, Iowa.
Although Tabor went 0-3 in pool play to finish at 26-12 on the season, Leibold said the experience is something she will remember forever.
“It was like a whirlwind of emotions, but it was something I will never forget and never take for granted,” she said. “It was just a blessing that we got to be there and a blessing that I was on the team and it happened to be my senior year.”
Leibold graduated from Tabor last month with a degree in social work and a minor in psychology. She recently passed her licensing exam and started a job with Textron Aviation. She plans to attend graduate school in the future and is anticipating marrying her fiancé, Ethan Reichmann, in June.
Asked what she enjoys most about volleyball, Leibold said, “I love to compete, but I just overall love the friendships that I’ve made and the memories and the laughter. Being able to play the sport you love with people you love, there’s nothing better than that.”
Leibold’s positive outlook has carried her through a number of obstacles. Leibold said she made the most of difficult circumstances by seeking to bring joy to others.
“That’s just kind of how I live life,” she said. “I just want to make it the best that I can and glorify God how I can. He knew I was going to have all the injuries, so he just made me to heal so fast that I could play again for him.”