College athletes are accustomed to the stares cast upon them from strangers. After all, thousands of eyes pack the stands at college athletic events on a daily basis.
The Colorado State volleyball team is no stranger to this phenomenon as 2,000 people fill the seats of Moby Arena every match, making them one of the most-watched programs in the sport.
But for the Rams’ 6-foot-6 middle blocker, Kirstie Hillyer, looks of awe at her athletic ability are nothing compared to the stares she receives just by walking into a Wal-Mart.
“If I walk into like Wal-Mart or any store, any room, everybody around me looks at me,” Hillyer said. “If I walk in with my roommates or my mom or anything they are like, ‘Kirstie, everybody is looking at you.’ Like, I know.”
Hillyer’s height has always been present as she recalls how she was usually the tallest one in her classes through elementary, middle and high school. Her 6-foot-10 father is probably the main one to blame for passing on the tall genes. She also has a 6-foot-9 brother, making her only the third tallest person in the immediate family.
The Hillyer family has a long history with basketball, whether it be playing or coaching. Because of this, Kirstie started out on the basketball court. It wasn’t until middle school that Hillyer joined a volleyball team and attended a camp hosted by CSU head coach Tom Hilbert in her hometown of Bayfield, Colo.
“I didn’t look anywhere else after eighth grade,” Hillyer said on being recruited by CSU. “We don’t like CU as a family so I was like, ‘Oh, not that one.’ As soon as (Hilbert) started talking to me I was like, ‘This is it, this feels right,’ so I basically stopped looking in eighth grade.”
In Bayfield, she met current teammate Maddi Foutz in sixth grade and the two played together on their high school team for two years. The 5-foot-5 defensive specialist is a stark contrast in height to Hillyer. But their friendship over the years has given Foutz a perspective on how Hillyer is able to deal with all of the attention coming from strangers on the street.
“Every time we walk down the street together she definitely gets looks but I always tell her, ‘Don’t worry they are looking because you’re pretty,’” Foutz said. “She does a really good job of staying patient when people are asking.”
That height has been put to use on the college volleyball court as the middle blocker continues to dominate the Mountain West Conference. Last year, she was named the Mountain West Newcomer of the Year in her first campaign as a Ram. She finished with 1.59 blocks per set to easily lead the conference, rank fourth nationally and pace all freshmen in the country.
This season, Hillyer averages 1.47 blocks per set, the best mark in the Mountain West. That mark would rank 19th nationally, but she does not yet qualify for the stat after missing time due to a knee injury.
“When she is on, she is attacking the ball at a high enough point that there are very few blockers in our conference that can stop her,” Hilbert said. “She also is a very big presence at the net. If she closes a block, she creates very difficult shots for the opponent.”
But athletes are still people. This is especially true for collegiate athletes who have to go to school and interact with the people in and around their university. Hillyer’s interactions almost always start the same way with the same questions.
How tall are you? Do you play basketball? How’s the weather up there?
These questions seem minor, but having them repeated daily and receiving constant stares can weigh upon a person. Hilbert has coached at CSU for 21 years now and has seen numerous tall athletes come through his program. He described how tall players received full-ride scholarships and started on a top 25 team in the country. Yet when they are asked if they could go back and be shorter, they still say yes.
“That’s sad, it’s sad that we as a society don’t respect those people,” Hilbert said. “I think people just don’t realize what they are doing.”
Athletes and fans alike know that height does have a major impact on athletic performance, but what the people on the outside miss are the problems that it can create. Shopping for clothes is close to impossible for taller women because dresses that are supposed to be longer end up being too short and jean sizes have no accurate fit for a 6-foot-6 frame.
Even trying to find a bike in such a rider-friendly place like Fort Collins can be difficult. Hillyer’s long legs do not fit into the dimensions of normal bikes, preventing her from riding them.
People do not seem to understand why Hillyer chose to play volleyball over basketball, either. She described how some people have actually become emotionally angry with her because of this choice.
Through all the frustrations of buying items that do not fit to being stared at and questioned, Hillyer has learned to embrace her height and does not wish to change anything about it. Her father, Rich Hillyer, played an important role in teaching her to love her towering stature.
“My dad was a huge part of me embracing my height because ever since I was young he was like, ‘You’re going to be tall, tall is beautiful, own it,’” Hillyer said. “Never once in my life did I hate my height.”
Dealing with the questions comes pretty easy for Hillyer who has learned that talking with people about her height depends on the attitude the person enters with. Hillyer is short with people who act rude and condescending, but will hold conversations with people who are naturally curious and courteous.
“I know it’s a fact of life that I’m going to get (questioned) all the time,” Hillyer said. “No matter what, I’ll talk to people about it.”
In order to counteract all of the attention she receives in public, Hillyer had business cards printed last May that list the answers to people’s obvious questions. The card tells the person her height, how volleyball is better than basketball and that the weather up there is, in fact, the same.
Hillyer said she has actually given a few of them out and the people’s reaction to it is one of surprise and laughter because they realize how obvious their questions were.
This positive attitude carries over onto the court. Fans can see her playful nature coming out of a timeout or before a set when she gives loud cheers to her teammates or raises her arms to give one of the defensive specialists a target to jump for a high five.
“I definitely try to keep our energy up as a team and just stay positive,” Hillyer said. “Sometimes you go into the huddle and get a hard talk from coach or something and everyone is like, ‘Ugh we have to go turn this around’ and are focusing on that…I try to bring a little bit more of (the fun) aspect back into it.”
The girl with a rocket arm, as Foutz described, is helping lead the Rams toward their 23rd consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. She’s the one the Rams can rely on to put the ball away for a kill or get the big block to change a match.
Hillyer has risen above the attention garnered by her height, just like she physically did throughout her life. Now, the only strangers’ eyes she cares for are the ones watching her compete on the court.
“I love to go out and compete and show everybody what I can do,” Hillyer said.
The weather up there seems to be just fine.
Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ajwrules44.