ROCHESTER (AP) -- Deb Vosler has known since she was a little girl that volleyball was going to play a big part in her life.
As a grade schooler in Wyoming, she dreamed of starring on the high school varsity team. She achieved that with two state championships and two undefeated seasons in her junior and senior years at Cheyenne East.
Vosler hoped that volleyball might pay her way through college, and she accomplished that with full rides through Eastern Wyoming College, and then Cameron University in Oklahoma.
Vosler, 45, even envisioned herself where she is today: Passing on her knowledge and passion for volleyball as a high school coach.
What Vosler didn't see in her future was a wheelchair. What she couldn't have imagined when she first picked up a volleyball in the fourth grade is that the game would put her there.
Vosler, who has used a wheelchair since the 1991 amputation of her right leg just above the knee, is in her first season as head coach of the Dover-Eyota High School volleyball program.
It's a return to coaching for Vosler, who coached in college for one year and also guided her old high school team for 10 years before sore knees caused her to quit in the mid 1980s.
"I thought volleyball was in my past," said Vosler. "I was very nervous about getting into coaching again. I hadn't coached since I was in my chair."
Vosler was in on the ground floor of high school volleyball in Wyoming.
Her sophomore year at East Cheyenne was the second year of sanctioned high school volleyball.
She starred for three years as a 5-foot-7 setter and hitter, losing only one match during her career.
But her teenage years were also marked by an unsettled home life. Her parents moved to Colorado when she was 16, and Vosler, the youngest of four siblings, stayed behind in Wyoming.
She lived with friends for various lengths of time throughout her last two years of high school, and was estranged from her parents.
"I grew up quickly and became very resourceful," she said. "There were times when I didn't have a place to stay, but I never missed school, and I never missed turning in an assignment on time."
Vosler graduated in the top 10 percent of her class of over 450 students in 1975, and gained a full scholarship to play volleyball at Eastern Wyoming College, a two-year school in Torrington.
She helped the fledgling Eastern Wyoming program to a 56-15 record in two seasons and played for NJCAA Hall of Fame coach Verl Petsch.
Vosler continued her college playing career at Cameron University in Oklahoma, lured there by full scholarship to help start a new program. She was team captain her senior year and led the Aggies to a 41-9 record.
Vosler's college success didn't come without pain. A variety of ailments, big and small, in both knees, hampered her throughout her career.
"I had damaged everything by the time I was done; my ACL (ligament), my medial and lateral ligaments, my meniscus, you name it," she said. "I actually lost minimal playing time to injuries, but that was because I always had surgeries in the off-season.
"I should've stopped playing, but I couldn't; I didn't want to lose my scholarship."
The pain and the surgeries didn't stop when her college playing career ended.
Vosler's knee problems nearly turned fatal in 1985, when her artificial right knee became infected.
"I was dying from the inside out," she said. "I could smell myself rotting, and I told my doctors something isn't right."
She was deathly ill when she was loaded on a Lear jet called "Flight for Life" and rushed to Mayo Clinic. Surgeons removed her right knee joint completely, and fused her leg back together.
Vosler spent three months in isolation, and was hospitalized in Rochester for nearly a year as she recovered.
"That's a long time to be alone," she said. "The doctors and nursing staff became my family. One of the nurses who took care of me then, 17 years ago, is now my very dearest friend."
Vosler found life with a fused leg to be clumsy. Her right leg was many inches shorter than her left, and without a knee joint she couldn't bend her leg.
"Everywhere I sat, my leg would stick straight out," she said. "I couldn't drive, I couldn't ride on airplanes."
The fused leg brought its own problems, including poor circulation. In 1991, Vosler decided she had had enough of the pain, and she opted for one more radical surgery: amputation.
"My life was being controlled by pain and pain medications, and I wasn't who I wanted to be any longer," she said. "It was my choice (to have the amputation), and it was a great decision.
Vosler's right leg was removed just above the knee. It was her 43rd knee surgery in 11 years.
Vosler was at Mayo Clinic for a checkup in the summer of 2000 when she saw an ad in the newspaper for an employment opportunity. Dover-Eyota High School needed a science teacher.
"I wasn't looking for a new job," she said. "It was more like one of those 'what the heck' decisions you make in the spur of the moment."
Vosler had 20 years of seniority at East Cheyenne High School, and she had just been honored as the first woman inducted into her high school's hall of fame.
Her principal was stunned when she said she was moving to Minnesota.
Dover-Eyota officials pointed out that she'd lose her seniority and take a significant pay cut to come here. But salary wasn't a priority.
"All of this happened in a week's time, in August," she said. "I packed up all of my belongings in a U-Haul and drove straight here (to Eyota).
"I really felt like I was guided here."
Vosler wasn't involved in the volleyball program at D-E in her first two years at the school. But when former coach Melanie Monroe resigned last year after two seasons, junior high coach John Pittenger encouraged Vosler to apply.
"John said he'd like to coach under me, and that he wouldn't apply for the varsity position if I did," she revealed. Pittenger is now the B squad coach, and he helps at varsity practices when Vosler needs something demonstrated.
It feels good to be coaching again, Vosler said. She gets rewards from her relationships with her varsity players, and inspiration from the excitable fifth and sixth grade girls playing in her Saturday community education program.
Vosler in return has been an inspiration for the kids.
"I love her; she has the most wonderful attitude about everything," said Kelsey Erickson, a senior captain. "I'm sure that other teams stare at our coach in the wheelchair. But we don't even think about it; it doesn't really affect us, or how she coaches us."
Now that she's back at it, Vosler plans to coach for many more years, and she intends to build a winning program at D-E.
"I have a true love for the sport, and the kids can see that," she said.
Vosler paid a high price for her devotion to volleyball, but she never blamed the game.
"It took my legs," she said, "but it gave me my education -- and my spirit."
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