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After off-court obstacles, volleyball’s Graham is set for success

Katherine Hui / Thresher

By Reed Myers     9/13/22 11:39pm

Carly Graham, the Owls’ fifth year setter, is no stranger to the spotlight. She is a two-time C-USA Setter of the Year and was named to the U.S. Women’s Collegiate National Team last spring. With such an accomplished career, it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, on the eve of her sophomore season, Graham was in the Intensive Care Unit in the Texas Medical Center receiving a life-altering diagnosis. 

“The day before my sophomore year, I ended up in the ICU for a few days with a Type I diabetes diagnosis,” Graham said. “The whole summer, I had been getting weaker and weaker and sick, and I didn’t know what was going on. I ended up in the ICU with what’s called diabetic ketoacidosis, which comes from prolonged un-diagnosis of Type I diabetes.”

Type I diabetes occurs when the pancreas produces little to no insulin, and those diagnosed have to rely on insulin shots or a pump to produce insulin. According to Graham, who was gearing up for her sophomore season after a productive freshman year, she noticed changes with her body over the summer.

“I lost a significant amount of muscle mass, I lost a ton of weight over the summer, and so I was just extremely weak and fatigued from that,” Graham said. “Once I got that insulin back, your body is like ‘oh, thank god,’ and starts working and getting back to where you were before.”

Graham, the youngest of four kids, was determined to get back onto the court following her diagnosis. According to Graham, her recovery time was quick following her time in the ICU.

“Once I left the hospital, I jumped right back into practice the next day,” Graham said. “Obviously, I was weaker and had to build back up my strength, but it never stopped me from playing volleyball, except for when I was in the ICU.”

After a scary start to her year, Graham was back to playing the sport she loved. However, Graham wasn’t immediately sold on volleyball when she first heard about it growing up.

“I was really into softball and basketball growing up, and then one of my softball teammates asked me to go to a camp with her for volleyball, and I remember thinking, ‘oh, that’s really lame; why would I want to do that?’ Graham said. “I ended up going, and I instantly was full in, and all I wanted to do was play volleyball.”

Graham has been all-in for the Owls during a career that has seen her quarterback the Owls offense to the tune of ranking fifth in Division I volleyball in kills per set last season. According to Graham, she is making good on the feeling she first had when she toured campus as a high school student.

“I came on my visit and instantly just felt at home almost,” Graham said. “I had taken a few other visits, [but] I had a gut instant feeling that I belonged here; so I went with that, and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Graham said that the feeling of belonging at Rice was fully apparent following her diagnosis as teammates, coaches and the Rice community were there to help.

“I had a great support network between my family, my teammates, coaches, athletic trainers and Rice really really helped me,” Graham said. “That’s another reason why I’m like ‘gosh, I really was meant to be at this place’ because we were right across the street from the best medical center in the world.”

Graham would go on to play in 105 sets, rack up 522 assists and be a part of the first team in school history to win a match in the NCAA tournament, when the Owls swept the University of Oklahoma during her sophomore season. According to Graham, her career highlights include beating No. 2 University of Texas on the road in her junior year and winning in the NCAA tournament during her sophomore and senior seasons.

“You completely blackout, and then when the game is over, it’s just like, ‘oh my gosh,’ look at what we just did,” Graham said. “Those are the coolest moments ever because everybody is just in this like pure joy and sense of … look what we did to get here and we freaking did it.”

Since Graham was a student-athlete during the COVID-19 pandemic, she was given the option of taking a fifth year of eligibility by the NCAA. According to Graham, the question about using her fifth year came up during her end-of-the-year meeting with head coach Genny Volpe.

“I have the rest of my life to either work or do whatever I’m going to do and only this short time in my life where I can play Division I volleyball at my favorite place,” Graham said. “I didn’t really think about it, and at the moment, I was like ‘yes, of course,’ so it was just an easy decision for me because I love volleyball, Rice and the program.”

Graham is now back at the helm of the Owls’ offense and is coming off a senior year that included 1021 assists in only 92 sets played. According to Graham, while she is still learning about living with Type I diabetes, she has made large strides since the initial diagnosis. 

“It was a huge learning curve, and I’m still learning, and every day is different,” Graham said. “In the beginning, it was extremely scary, and everything felt like a whirlwind, but now I’m kind of settled in and feel confident.”

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