QC women's volleyball player overcomes disability
Nicole Nieves was born without a left hand, but has still managed to excel in athletics, life
By MARC RAIMONDI
Last Updated: 5:39 AM, September 26, 2009
Posted: 12:05 AM, September 26, 2009
Athleticism, tremendous leaping ability, power. Those were all things Queens College women's volleyball coach Pascale Lubin noticed when potential recruit Nicole Nieves sent in her game tape last year.
Nieves was a find for a Division II school, a prospect who could come in and play right away. She was named conference player of the year as a senior at Gateway (Fla.) HS and led Osceola County in kills.
"I was excited," Lubin said.
Then the coach looked closer. Toward the middle of the tape, she noticed something else about Nieves. The 5-foot-9 outside hitter didn't have a left hand. Her arm ends just before where her wrist should be. Yet she was able to do everything all the other players could.
Nieves was born that way and she's never found out exactly why. Doctors told her that her umbilical cord might have wrapped around her hand, causing the malformation. But that doesn't explain the tiny fingers Nieves has grown in the area where her wrist should be.
She and her family moved from Queens to Kissimmee, Fla., when Nieves was 10 years old, and she began playing sports in the sixth grade. She started with volleyball, track and field, and cheerleading. Track was easy, but volleyball and cheerleading were a different story. In cheerleading, as one of the stronger girls, she had to lift up others.
"I don't know how I did that," Nieves said with a laugh.
She also doesn't have an explanation for how she was able to learn how to play the piano at age 6 or how she picked up tying her shoes so easily when she was 4.
"When she's determined to do something, she's going to do it," said Nieves' mother, Vilma.
Volleyball became her main focus before long. She was right-handed, so hitting came relatively easy. If there is one thing she did have trouble with, it was setting, but she has learned how to do that with one hand.
People haven't always been completely accepting of her abilities on the court, though. Nieves said she is rarely treated differently, but she had a club coach in high school who was skeptical that she could do the things people said she could.
"He would say, ‘Nikki, don't block, because it's going to go out of bounds,'" Nieves said.
Aside from instances like that, athletics was a safe haven. Nieves threw herself into sports in part because she was rarely judged on a court or a field.
"People stare and people talk about it on the street," said Nieves, who is studying neuro science at Queens. "When I'm playing sports, it doesn't happen much. ... Nobody cares. They care more about what your talent level is."
She said she wasn't comfortable showing her left arm in public until her senior year of high school. Despite the sometimes oppressive temperatures in Florida, Nieves, who works at a restaurant in Disney World, always hid her disability with jackets and sweatshirts.
That isn't the case anymore. Nieves' left arm is in plain sight in her picture on the Queens College athletics Web site. She's also very open about it with teammates. Lubin recalled a time when she yelled at her for not using her left hand for a dig and the two laughed it off.
"She jokes about it all the time," teammate Nicolette Viglietta said.
Nieves doesn't let it affect any part of her volleyball experience, either. Lubin said she does the same amount of pull-ups and push-ups the other players do.
"Her disability doesn't even come into play," the coach said. "Sometimes I totally forget about it."
That's understandable, with Nieves' play. The redshirt sophomore has started every match for Queens, is fourth on the team in kills and tied for second in blocks. Even more impressive is that she's playing out of position at middle due to injuries.
"I couldn't believe the talent she has," Lubin said. "She's a great leaper - she can jump extremely high. She's very strong. All the girls have been very impressed."
Like Lubin, they didn't notice Nieves' disability right away. Viglietta said she didn't realize until she went to give her a two-handed high five. Nieves just went with it and Viglietta knew then what kind of person she was.
Lubin recalls a time when she told her players to get dressed quicker and she looked down and watched Nieves tie her shoes with the same speed anyone else would.
"It's something you take for granted," the coach said. "I reflect on that."
Nieves doesn't. Not anymore. She leads a normal life and is a scholarship athlete studying to be a doctor.
"I don't necessarily treat it as a disability," Nieves said.
And, because of that, maybe it isn't anymore.
"Nothing," Vilma Nieves said, "is going to stop that child."