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  • Samantha Engel

What My Uniform Means to Me

In our final week of the season, the women’s volleyball team hosted our 50th-anniversary reunion and banquet. When I think back to the activities of that weekend, there is one image that immediately comes to mind: the members of our inaugural volleyball team finally receiving their varsity letter sweaters, 50 years late.

We heard about everything they had to endure, simply because they were women, just to play the game they loved. Things that seem trivial to us, such as gym time, equipment, and transportation, were battles they constantly faced. They even had to fight for their uniforms and for the right to wear the Cornell logo. Now, 50 years later, they were finally given recognition for their efforts and could wear the red C just like any other athlete.

Looking back on that moment, there was hardly a dry eye in the room. It was such a powerful moment to see how much the letter sweater – representing their alma mater on the same level as any male athlete – meant to them.

I remember my first time wearing a Cornell uniform. It was the July before my freshman year, and all of us incoming freshmen worked the volleyball camp. During one of our few moments outside of the gym, Joanna, one of our then-juniors, led us to the locker room where the graduated seniors had left a bin of old gear donations for the incoming freshmen. Getting to rummage through the hand-me-downs was one of the most exciting moments of the summer because I wanted to wear gear for my new school that much.

I was the last to look through the bin, and what was left was an old tournament t-shirt, which I gratefully snagged, and a pair of one-size-too-big uniform spandex, with rips on the side from the player before me. I was so excited when I saw these and immediately grabbed them too. I wanted to wear them for the rest of camp and when I got home to train for the remainder of summer.

I loved having the opportunity to wear the Cornell logo because I have dreamt of playing for this school and program since my sophomore year of high school. Even before then, in 5th grade, I wrote in my journal that my goals were to go to an Ivy League school and to play a Division 1 sport. Therefore, having the privilege and opportunity to sport that hand-me-down spandex in summer workouts meant everything to me. What I didn’t realize, however, was that the C logo on my right leg of the uniform spandex didn’t just represent my personal dreams, but represented all of the hard work and dedication of hundreds of women who came before me.

Another moment during the banquet that really stuck out to me was when a player from the 1980s was talking about the culture of their team. She mentioned how wearing those uniforms made them even closer as a team – not in terms of representing the school, but the fit of the uniforms themselves. In the 1980s, the standard volleyball uniform included “bun-huggers”, or shorts that more closely resembled swimsuit bottoms than shorts themselves.

I could immediately relate, even though the 2.5” inseam of our spandex is much better than the shorts of the past. I always feel self-conscious about how my body looks in a uniform that reveals so much, and I’m always pulling them down. I’ve also heard some men mention that the only reason people come to our games is to see us “in those shorts.”

I wish other people saw our uniforms how I see them: a representation of the hard work, determination, sacrifice, and struggle it took to play for this program. Our games are gritty and competitive, and volleyball is the fastest-growing women’s sport for a reason.

As women's sports continue to break into the national market, I just hope that the sexualization of female athletes ceases, and in its place comes respect for our female athletes, regardless of how their uniforms fit.

I earn the privilege of wearing that Cornell jersey during those brutal 5am wake-ups for practice, throughout my summers conditioning and training, and during the long bus rides back to Ithaca from away games. Sometimes, during the crux of the season, I forget how much I wanted this challenge. The sleep deprivation starts to get the best of me, and I wonder why anyone would choose to be both at an Ivy League school and a Division 1 Athlete. It’s clearly not for everyone.

However, it’s the little moments that remind me of my purpose and passion for this sport. Whether it’s getting a huge stuff block and celebrating with my team, or when your teammates do something mind-blowing (like Joanna hitting the ball off the Harvard girl’s face… headshot!) and cheering even louder for her than I’d ever cheer for myself, volleyball is truly the ultimate team sport. One person cannot just take over the game and dribble up the field and score – you need the whole team working smoothly to win. Those moments with my sisters are what make all of the sacrifice worth it.


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