From the Main Draw to the Qualifier: Lisa Rutledge-Fitzgerald's Comeback Story

Lisa Fitzgerald. Getty Images

The Lisa Rutledge-Fitzgerald made her beach volleyball debut in 2009 at a qualifier in Manhattan Beach with Angela McHenry. And from that season onwards, Fitzgerald was on a volleyball rocketship. Rutledge improved her AVP season points ranking by at least 15 positions each year from 2005-2009. She advanced to the AVP main draw the last 11 times she has played in a qualifier. In a banner year, Fitzgerald was the AVPs Best Defensive Player (Blocker) and AVP Most Improved Player for the 2009 season. In April 2010 Rutledge and Brooke Hanson emerged from the qualifier in Brasilia as the 25th seed to place fifth, becoming the lowest seeded qualifier team to garner a fifth-place finish or better in FIVB history.

But in 2013 that changed when Fitzgerald blew her shoulder out. She opted for surgery and had to take the next three seasons off. Now Fitzgerald is back and looking to resume her spot as a regular Main Draw player. She took a few minutes to share her comeback story and why it's important for her to play again. 

How did you start playing volleyball?

I started to play when I was pretty young, probably around 9 or 10. My grandparents are from Iowa and they would play volleyball in their backyard, so I grew up around the sport. And for me volleyball has always been such a positive and social sport, it was easy to fall in love with it.  

What was it about that sport that "clicked" for you?

Growing up a played a few other sports, but I didn’t really excel at any of them specifically. I generally felt unathletic and uncoordinated. Except for volleyball… that was a sport that came easy and naturally to me. Even then, no one in my family ever imagined that I would ever play volleyball in college… until I did. Because I just really loved the sport, And when you’re passionate about something your naturally inclined to work harder at it to get better.

You had an extremely notable collegiate indoor career at Arizona, what made you want to switch from indoor to beach?

Right after college, I went to Puerto Rico to try out for a team there, but I didn’t make the cut. Which at the time was pretty devastating. So I decide to move back to San Diego and shortly thereafter I was watching an AVP event and realized that a lot of the girls competing were the same ones I played against in college. And if they were doing it, then I wanted to do it too. But it wasn’t just that… I also felt like there was a void in my life. After playing volleyball for so many years, I felt out of sorts NOT playing. So I started playing beach volleyball and it was a whole new world. You’re playing all the positions. You’re outside. You’re on the beach.  How could you not love that? And when I think back to If I had made the team in Puerto Rico, I don’t know if ever would have tried playing.

From your debut in 2005 and played until 2012, but in 2013 got hurt.  you tore it up on the AVP, what do you attribute your success to?

A lot of it had to do with my indoor training at the University of Arizona. As a college athlete, the coaches run a tight ship. They instill a strong sense of discipline in you - whether it be in the gym or in the classroom. And when you come out of college, you’re still in that mindset. With the beach game, you don’t inherently have a coach or really anyone keeping you accountable. So the discipline I learned at Arizona was really what kept me on track.

I also had some really great partners. They were veteran players who had been in the finals or high-pressure matches before. One of the more influential players in my career was Angela Rock, who was an important mentor for me because she helped me get in shape and taught me how to win in the sand.

And then you got injured…. How did that happen?

I’m not totally sure, but I think it was just overuse. I started playing club at such a young age, so there was that. Also, the indoor game is all about power. So fast forward to  2013 when I made a weird dig and felt my arm go dead. It happened at a tournament so we kept playing because the competitive streak in me didn't want to drop out. But afterward, I got it checked out and started rehab. While I got incrementally stronger, I knew it wasn't the same as before. So almost a full year later I opted for surgery, which is when the found out that I had a labral tear and bicep tendonitis (meaning basically that my bicep was shredded).

What were the things that you were weighing mentally?

I knew that I absolutely wanted to play and compete again.  So at that point, it was just about ensuring that any surgery I was realistically considering would ensure that I was back on the court. As an athlete, this has been your identity since you were 14. So when you think about walking away from it, you do go to a dark place. You feel isolated. Because your friends are volleyball players and it's hard not to be there. I really wanted to play again even if my shoulder was never going to be the same.

At any point, did you consider retiring?

No, I was going to do whatever it took to play again. I figured that if the surgery couldn't fix my right hand, then I’d learn to hit with my left hand.  

So now in your mid-30s, you’re making your comeback… you’re back in the qualifiers and having to build up your ranking again.  How was that process been? What’s different this time around?

I thought it was hard in 2005, but it's way harder now because now you have all these college beach players, who are exceptional athletes, and they are playing in the AVP qualifiers. They are younger, they are faster, their technique is solid… it's been a good challenge, but the influx of talented players isn't going to stop.

My first qualifier back was at the AVP New York City Open  2015 and we lost to get into the National Collegiate champions in the final match to get into the main draw. And that loss hurt - I mean it really stung. But they played great and deserved it. In fact, they went on to take 3rd place in that tourney - which is almost unheard of.

Do you think that the addition of NCAA beach volleyball has increased the competition levels in the qualifier?

For sure, across the entire sport - from the qualifiers to the main draw - there’s been a significant uptick in talent.  Take Geena Eurango for example. … she was the first scholarship recipient for the USC sand volleyball program for the 2012 season and she took 2nd place in an AVP this year. I think collegiate volleyball is awesome for beach volleyball. I think it's going to give us a whole new wave of talented athletes who can hone their skills with a coach, so someone is by their side supporting them.

What keeps you motivated each day?

The love of competition. I love the strategy of the game. I love the comradery. I love the social aspects of the sport. It's such a small community and everyone knows each other - it basically feels like family. Even with the superstars of the sport If you look at Kerri, April or  Phil, they are all reflections of what the community it and it's awesome.

Another huge motivation for me to come back and play was that I had so much support and encouragement from my family and friends. From my husband, John Fitzgerald, to my volleyball partner/best friend Lynne Galli. I would not have been as successful last year if it wasn’t for them encouraging me every day. 

Any advice to other volleyball players who are facing a similar situation?

I think that it's all about balance. While volleyball is incredibly important to me, but I know it's not everything. So I try to keep my perspective balanced and focus on family and friends. Which means that every so often I’ll intentionally separate myself from volleyball just to mix it up. It's good to have a healthy balance there.