It was love at first sight for Amber MacDonald.
As a high school junior MacDonald was in the grandstand at Seattle’s Key Arena when she watched the upstart University of Wisconsin volleyball team shock top-seeded Texas in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
“I was watching them play and watching them fight and the chemistry they had on the court and how gritty they were,” MacDonald said. “I knew that was the kind of environment I wanted to be in and I hadn’t seen that kind of love and passion with another team. That’s what drove me to come here.”
MacDonald’s love affair with UW volleyball will continue, but her playing days are over.
The junior defensive specialist from Alpharetta, Georgia, has decided to retire from the sport because of ongoing issues with her right wrist, which has already undergone two surgeries.
“It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” said MacDonald, the Badgers’ sole captain in 2017. “It came to where I couldn’t do everyday activities. I couldn’t brush my teeth with my right hand or open a door knob. That’s just no way to live.”
MacDonald had been playing hurt ever since the sixth match of her freshman season when she suffered a partially torn tendon in her right wrist. She toughed it out the rest of the season and had surgery afterward to repair what by then was a completely torn tendon.
She popped it again the next season and had a second surgery to clean up the scar tissue. After enduring a painful junior season her medical options were shrinking.
Her problems stem from the ulna bone in her right arm, which is too long and causes pinching of the tendons and inflammation.
“It’s just something I was born with,” she said. “It’s been painful for a long time but I was able to battle through it with hopes that some of these treatments and surgeries would help. They didn’t. The only one I have left is a surgery where they saw my arm bone in half and put in metal plates and rods. The recovery is ridiculous and I would end up missing the season anyway.”
She had several discussions about her future with coach Kelly Sheffield, who offered her the one remaining scholarship if she wanted to return for her senior season. But ultimately she decided the pain was too great to go through another year and told her teammates at a Monday meeting that her career was over.
While the injuries limited her playing time, she still played in all but three of the 99 matches over three years, missing those because of a minor concussion. She recorded 507 career digs and had 35 aces. She also made her mark on the team off the court.
“In a lot of ways for the past 12 months she’s been our North Star,” Sheffield said. “She represents what the program is about on and off the court. She was the example of all that we’re about and that’s why she was a unanimous captain’s pick.
“You could make a highlight film of the digs she made in the right back over her career and some awfully big serves she came up with. She contributed to a lot of wins with the number of big plays she made over her three years here.”
Not bad for an undersized player (5-4 in shoes) who had to recruit the UW staff before it recruited her.
“She’s a kid from Georgia who we didn’t know anything about,” Sheffield said. “She rammed it down our throat that she was going to be somebody that we’d want. Watching her the first time it was, man I want that kid in our gym. I want her around our culture. Coming from a thousand miles away as a walk-on and be the sole team captain her junior year is pretty remarkable. I’m excited for her future.”
MacDonald will remain at UW to complete her degree next year in communication sciences and disorders. She hopes to pursue a graduate degree in speech pathology at UW.
She also plans to carve out a role next season either as a manager or student assistant with the team.
“Just because I can’t play doesn’t mean I’m done with this,” said MacDonald, whose sister Anna is committed to join the program in 2019. “Of course, I would’ve liked to have finished out my career and finish my senior season. There will be a void in my life, for sure, without volleyball. It’s been my identity for the last 10 years.
“But I had a great career. I got to be a captain of a top 10 program and a starter for a top 10 program. I feel like I really accomplished all the things that I set out to do here. I got to play at the highest level of volleyball and I’ll always be able to say that.”