#18: Spotlight

Whitley Valentine Brings Experience and Attitude to NU Volleyball
by Eli Frazier of the Northshore Sentinel

Type "Whitley Valentine" into Google and hit "search." No, really. Do it. I'll wait.

Therein lies the challenge: there is remarkably little that hasn't been written about Whitley Valentine, a former NCAA women's volleyball star and Northshore University's newest assistant volleyball coach. Whitley has lived in an unrelenting spotlight since high school, and at this point, she admits, it's par for the course.

"You get used to it. It's sad to say, but you do. Several times a week, someone comes up to me out of the blue, taps me on the arm, and informs me I'm the biggest person they've ever seen, or asks what size shoes I wear, or even, as clichéd as it is if I play basketball. Yeah, that's my life."

When I ask how she replies, she immediately offers several responses—none appropriate for print. Whitley speaks honestly and candidly, her tone as plain and forthright as her outstanding seven-foot-two height. As an undergraduate English major at Durrenburg University writing for the school newspaper, her articles were known for pushing the boundaries of objectivity, bordering on satire. Her column, Sports are Stupid, was a hit on campus during her three years on staff. Some of her more memorable quotes included calling volleyball "a sport requiring an even more arbitrary and ludicrous skill set than basketball" and cheerleading "JV gymnastics meets PG-13 burlesque, plus shouting."

"It gave me a constructive outlet to air my grievances. A lot of it was for entertainment, but there were elements of honesty in everything I wrote. I eat between four and five thousand calories a day, so I'm not really in the habit of restraint."

Whitley says this as she polishes off her second of three triple stacks of blueberry pancakes she would devour over the course of our breakfast interview, alongside bacon, hash browns, sausage, and four boiled eggs.

"Legend" is hardly an exaggeration of her status in the volleyball world. Many Internet users recall a 2010 viral video of Whitley knocking an opposing setter unconscious with a powerful spike—the impact lifting the girl off her feet like an elementary schooler getting hit by a high school varsity athlete in a game of dodgeball. As word got around, Whitley found she could psychologically affect the game simply through her mere presence at the net.

"Her hitting form is literal perfection," said NU co-assistant Volleyball Coach Koga Nakahara. "Watching her in motion is a masterclass in form and technique, and her power is off the charts. I've never seen anything like it."

In fact, few people have seen anything like Whitley Valentine, and her reputation reaches well beyond volleyball. If you're from the city of Durrenburg, she’s noteworthy for being one of five people (and the only woman) to have completed the five-pound burger challenge at Jak's Grill—and the only person to order dessert afterward. If you're a college basketball fan, she's the daughter of 1980s UCLA basketball standout Larry Valentine. Those interested in world records may know her as the tallest woman in the United States and the second-tallest living woman in the world.

More notoriously, Whitley was dismissed from the USA Olympic national team training camp due to testing "overwhelmingly positive," for marijuana use. She brings up the subject herself but declines to elaborate beyond: “I was stupid. I let down myself, the team, and particularly my coach."

Whitley speaks fondly and passionately of her four years playing for Maddie Grace, a former Olympian and one of the most respected coaches in NCAA women's volleyball, as well as college sports as a whole. While Whitley admits her relationship with Coach Grace was far from perfect, she wouldn't trade her experience for anything.

"She brought out the best in everyone on the team, including me. To be honest, I never once looked at what she did as a coach and thought 'I could do that.'"

...which is why it was more than a bit unexpected when she received and accepted an offer from Northshore University volleyball to be an assistant coach.

"I told her 'I'm not a volleyball coach. I'm a volleyball player.' [Coach Richter] said that was fine, and my experience would be valuable to the players. I told her I'd give it my best shot."

Giving her 'best shot' is unfamiliar territory for Whitley, who typically does not have to reach for success, but rather takes hold of it. Volleyball came as natural to her as walking, and she's found success by all standards at the sport. When asked what her goals are as a coach, Whitley pauses, having admittedly not answered the question for herself.

"I want the team to play their best, and I want them to have fun doing it."

I ask if she expects to have fun coaching, and she smiles as she finishes her third pancake triple-stack.

"If I'm not having fun, it ain't worth doing."