Lora Webster is a 5-time Paralympic volleyball player, and a mom of three—with one on the way. That’s right, Lora is competing in Tokyo pregnant. A four-time medal winner (one gold, two silver and one bronze), she is also a childhood bone cancer survivor, which resulted in a surgery that caused her to lose her knee. After battling cancer and losing her knee in a surgery to remove the tumor, she received a prosthesis and became a standout high school athlete, competing not only in volleyball but also track and diving.
Like many athlete moms at the Olympic level, childcare is another hurdle Lora has had to overcome to get to Tokyo, and she is one of the mothers receiving childcare grants through the $200,000 collaboration between Allyson Felix, the Women’s Sports Foundation and Athlete. We spoke to Lora about receiving part of this grant, the biggest misconceptions about sitting volleyball, competing pregnant, how her parents encouraged her to follow her dreams and more!
Congratulations, on your 5th Paralympic Games—and your little one on the way! Can you tell us a bit about finding out you were pregnant and what it has been like heading into this games?
Thank you very much! Finding out I was pregnant this time around was a huge surprise. It was something we had hoped would happen five years ago (right after the 2016 Rio Games) but according to the doctors my body had stopped working so we started to pursue adoption instead. To be honest joy was not the first emotion we had— shock definitely won out! It felt very surreal for the first month or so, but once we finally told our 3 kids, it helped to make it feel a bit more real. As far as the Tokyo Games are concerned, this pregnancy didn’t change my mindset going into the competition. I was actually 20 weeks pregnant with my second during the gold medal match in the London 2012 Games so I knew my body could handle it this time around.
Amazing. Do you change anything in terms of the way you compete when you’re pregnant?
I don’t change much in the way that I train, but I do try to listen to my body a bit more than I would if I weren’t pregnant. I give myself more water breaks and make sure I’m not pushing through some aches and pains like I typically would. Thankfully my body has been playing sitting volleyball for over 18 years so it is used to the unique movements this sport requires.
You were diagnosed with cancer at age 11, and eventually lost your knee in a surgery to remove the cancerous bone. But you continued to competitively play sports—volleyball, diving, and track. What do you think made you want to continue? Did your parents do anything that helped you stay motivated to stay in the game?
I have a sister who is 6 years older than me and as I was going through treatment, she was finishing up her high school career and getting ready to play volleyball in college. I have always idolized my sister and she played a huge part in motivating me to get back into sports and to be competitive amongst my peers. My parents played an important part as well because they never allowed me to wallow in the “why me” mentality for too long. They knew that there was nothing we could do to change to cards we were dealt, so we needed to get up and make the most of it. I’m so grateful to my family because they never dwelled on the really bad stuff, they just always looked ahead to what the next positive moment might be.
What a fantastic message! How have you encouraged your own kids in sports?
My husband and I are both volleyball players and we both grew up playing every sport we could. Although he and I can be (ridiculously) competitive, we have never pushed our kids to be that way. We’ve encouraged them to try any sport they want and try to keep sports fun rather than all about being the best and always winning. We don’t buy into the whole “specializing” idea or believe that any of our kids need to be on a travel team at this age. We want them to have fun and enjoy what sports are all about.
Can you tell us a bit about sitting volleyball?
Sitting volleyball is very similar to standing volleyball. The biggest differences are that in sitting we actually sit on the ground to play, using primarily our hands to move to the ball (feet are used as well if you have them). The net is much lower, about 3 1/2 feet from the floor and the court is a bit smaller. In the standing game there are “foot faults” when serving and attacking from the back row, and in the sitting game we have “butt faults” instead. Lastly, we can block the serve in the sitting game, which is not allowed in the standing game. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about sitting volleyball is that it is easy. Unfortunately many people see adaptive sports and believe that they are only for “disabled” people or that the adaptive sport is a watered down version of the “regular” sport they play or see on tv. The truth is that sitting volleyball is really hard and, being someone who has played both, I chose to play sitting over playing standing because I loved the challenge that the sitting game offered. One of my favorite things about sharing sitting volleyball is seeing people’s faces the first time they try to play. They are always shocked by how much movement is necessary and how hard it really is.
Do you train all year round? Can you please talk about the struggle with childcare and the grant that you received?
I do train year round. For us, our season is 4 years long, what we call a quad, and a new quad begins as soon as the pervious quad ends after a Paralympic Games. I am a stay at home mom when I am not playing volleyball so when I need to travel for training or a competition, it has always been a huge struggle to find childcare. We don’t have any family nearby so we rely on hourly babysitters to fill in the gaps while I’m gone and unfortunately we have had many situations where a sitter has cancelled at the last minute or simply failed to show up and my husband has been left to figure it out on his own. The childcare grant that Allyson, Athleta and the Women’s Sports Foundation have created has truly changed our life. For Tokyo we are able to afford extra summer camps and to fly in my mom to help my husband out, while also compensating her for the work she is missing. As a Paralympian I am not a paid athlete so, although I receive a training stipend, I don’t make a salary to pay for childcare while I am gone. This grant has given me a peace of mind that I have never had before knowing that I have someone who will be here every day for my family. Mom guilt often takes up the most space in my head while I am away and it often distracts me from focusing on the game. Heading into Tokyo, which is already going to be a very stressful situation especially because of the 13 hour time difference, I feel secure for the first ever knowing that my kids will have consistency, because I know my mom can’t cancel on me!
What has preparing for Tokyo been like compared to other years?
The prep for Tokyo has been unlike any other not only because we are wearing masks while playing and training at home more, but because we haven’t had the tournaments that we typically have leading up to a Paralympic Games. Usually we will compete against most of the teams that we might face in a Paralympics at least once before we go. This time around though, many of our prep tournaments have been cancelled so we are going into this one without having seen our competition like we usually do. It’s a very strange feeling to say the least.
What would you consider to be your career highlight?
Oooh this is a tough one! It would be easy to say that the Gold we won in Rio was the highlight, and it definitely was amazing! But I really cherish the bronze we won in Athens in 2004. This was the first Paralympics that women’s sitting volleyball was included and our team had only been in existence for 18 months. We were facing teams who had been together for years and we were expected to be n where near the medal stand. The fact that we won bronze was a huge shock but it really set the bar for our program and thankfully we have continued to build from that moment.
What would you tell any parents reading this if they have a child who may have any sort of disability?
I think that sports can make a huge impact for anyone who has a physical difference. Whether it’s an adaptive sport or an able bodied sport, playing with your peers can be so rewarding. I have spoken to parents who are hesitant to let their kids start playing sports again and my advice is typically to let the child lead the way. When I first started playing sports after my amputation, I was nervous about being good and I felt a bit awkward on the court. My parents pushed me to figure out how I could adjust the sport to work with my new body. It took some trial and error but I realized that even though I did things a little bit different than my friends did, I was still able to keep up with them. For me, getting back into sports made me feel like a kid again which was something that I lost while undergoing treatment. Whatever a child’s passion is, there is a way to still be able to do it, it just might take a little adjustment and some tweaking.
Specifically, if a parent is reading this and is interested in helping their child attend competitions, learn about the Paralympics or even hope to compete at that level – do you have any advice on where to start?
I am not a lover of social media but I do love its ability to connect people with a shared interest all over the world. I have joined many groups on Facebook and they feel like close knit communities of people who have been through the same thing I have and can relate to the struggles I have faced. I have learned a lot through these groups and have also connected with other kids and adults and helped to get them involved in adaptive sports. Most adaptive sports teams have websites or social pages available for those who are interested, and TeamUSA.org also has information on all Olympic and Paralympic sports. I am also happy to help in any way I can!