Taelor Kellum walked into the Gale Lemerand practice facility at the University of Florida looking for answers.
A 9-year-old Holly Carlton followed her older sister, Kayla, to their quiet backyard in the …
The then-junior middle blocker was on her way to have a one-on-one meeting with coach Mary Wise. Nothing unusual for the end of the spring season just before the summer break.
Kellum had been struggling. And people noticed.
She had gotten familiar with standing on the sidelines. She’d watched her team from the corner of the court for the past two years after a brief playing stint in the beginning of her freshman year.
But now she was an upperclassman. It was now or never.
She and Wise sat down for their chat, a candid conversation that got real as quick as one of her kills nails the hardwood. Wise expressed her concerns and how she wanted Kellum to do something different and outside of her comfort zone that summer.
Kellum knew the importance of her leadership would be crucial for the team during the 2017 season and moving forward.
Something had to change, which was why she was happy to tell her coach she was flying out to California for a week by herself.
Wise’s interest was piqued.
Kellum was on a mission to find her identity outside of volleyball and her relationship with her religion specifically. To know that she could find pleasure in things without letting them completely take over her life. To prove that she could be a leader for this younger squad despite the fact she hadn’t started in two years.
She decided to travel to Los Angeles for the Ultimate Training Camp to find that identity. The camp is a program created by Athletes in Action, which spends about a week pushing people to physical extremes and toward understanding Christianity.
Kellum felt nervous, but she knew it was exactly what she needed. Wise agreed.
This was going to answer all of Kellum’s problems. This was going to show that she could not only earn a starting position for the Gators volleyball team, but she would own it too.
Kellum remembers the first moment she touched a volleyball.
As an athletic fifth grader, her physical education coach Terri Robinson encouraged her to go to a local volleyball meeting and expand her interests in sports.
She didn’t even know what a volleyball was. When Robinson showed her one, she confused it with a tetherball.
Kellum went to the meeting despite her lack of knowledge. It was the farthest thing from her expectations.
She watched videos of drills at the gathering. Kellum immediately became thrilled at the prospect of playing.
“It was exciting, but then I also knew that I was in a different world,” she said. “There was something completely different about what I was about to get myself into.”
Kellum pushed herself to continue with this newfound sport. She tried out for a club volleyball team a few weeks later and was swallowed up among a sea of bright-colored socks, knee pads and decorative spandex shorts.
“I came in wearing tennis shoes, basketball shorts and a T-shirt,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
But it turned out Kellum was actually pretty good at volleyball. She picked it up naturally, and the coaches started to notice her untapped talent.
“I kind of loved it,” she said with a big smile. “I thought, ‘I want a volleyball, I want knee pads, I want the sparkly spandex, the crazy socks, I want all of it.’”
But her love for volleyball conflicted with her first love: softball. She played outfield for a different club team. She often hustled from the field to the court during the week for practices.
One evening after finishing up some training on the diamond, her softball coach told her she had to choose and couldn’t continue to give 50 percent to one sport and 50 percent the other. It wasn’t fair.
The 13-year-old didn’t have to think too hard.
“I love it, but I think volleyball is my future,” she told him.
Kellum’s recruiting began around her sophomore year of high school. She had always been a big Auburn fan but expanded her interests to Butler, Purdue, Ole Miss, Florida State and Penn State.
As for Florida? Well, it wasn’t really an option.
“The thing is, that was OK because I was never looking at Florida,” she said. “I never thought once about Florida.”
But the recruiting process started to get overwhelming. As a sophomore, all of the pressure was on her to reach out to coaches instead of coaches reaching out to her, per NCAA regulations.
To help keep her grounded and organized, Taelor’s nana, Theresa Kellum, made a scrapbook with over 20 schools that she was interested in.
“She takes pride in all of my accomplishments,” Taelor said. “She kept their cards and letters. My mom’s my number one fan, but my nana, oh she is my number one fan.”
During the spring of her sophomore year, Taelor played for Choo Choo City Volleyball in a tournament called Big South. The Atlanta-based competition is billed as the largest indoor junior girls volleyball tournament held in a single weekend in North America.
It was that weekend that former Gators volleyball assistant coach Sally Polhamus heard a loud thump echo in the convention center as she was walking around the courts. She immediately came over to Taelor’s match and started to watch. Florida was then on her radar.
The watch party continued as coaches flocked to Taelor’s school, Signal Mountain High near Chattanooga, Tennessee.
A high school match brought the Florida and Ole Miss programs together as both head coaches watched Taelor from the bleachers — on opposite sides of the gym.
“That was a weird dynamic for me,” she said. “They see each other. They know each other.”
After the match, both coaches told Taelor they noticed their rivals were also in attendance.
Taelor didn’t know how to respond.
She found her answer soon enough. Florida would be her new home.
Taelor fell in love with the program. She ate dinner with the team at the Lemerand Athletic Center and saw firsthand how involved the coaches were in the program.
She verbally committed to the University of Florida her junior year and came up for an official visit the summer before her senior year.
“There was something about it,” she said. “I felt like I belonged. Everything felt so genuine.”
Taelor grew up in a Christian household. She has always thought of herself as a believer. But she really wasn’t.
“I was what you call a Checklist Christian,” she said with a shrug. “Went to church – got it. Went to service on Christmas – got it.”
It wasn’t until she got to UF that she said she realized she didn’t know who God really was.
Taelor started having doubts about her playing and her identity outside of volleyball.
“I think it was something that hurt my play and hurt the way I saw the game,” she said. “At one point I started to ask myself why I was even here. I put my identity literally in volleyball.”
It was about that time that Taelor started taking more notice of the people on her team, specifically Lindsey Rogers, who Taelor considers one of her closest friends to this day.
She watched Rogers live a life devoted to Christianity. Taelor wanted to live like that.
As a junior, Taelor had heard about opportunities to incorporate God into sports through Athletes in Action. Her youth leader, Kevin Sides, thought that the Ultimate Training Camp would be just the thing she needed.
She remembered walking out of one Sunday service at Greenhouse Church completely distraught at the idea that she was not in covenant with her God.
“In covenant means to be in agreement or bonded by a contract,” she said. “Giving my life over to Him and stop trying to live it the way I want.”
That’s when it truly hit her.
She immediately started talking to Rogers about her revelation in a text-message thread she still has today.
Taelor decided right then and there to go to the camp. She texted Sides about her decision and while Taelor was the only person from UF interested in the camp at the time, it didn’t scare her away.
The Ultimate Training Camp showed Taelor her true identity that summer.
“Not to be dramatic, but it was sort of life changing,” she said.
At the camp Taelor learned the organization’s five principles of incorporating God into sports and outside of sports. The concepts ask athletes to forgo fear and selfishness in favor of acceptance in God.
The hardest part of the camp, however, was a 20-hour competition where leaders pushed the athletes emotionally, physically and mentally to show them that they can’t do it all alone. At some point they have to rely on God. It was the ultimate test of faith.
Taelor was performing a drill normally ordered as a punishment during practice. Athletes ran up and down the court or field to various lines over and over. That’s when she hit her breaking point.
Taelor lives with the symptoms of asthma and needed her inhaler after the drill.
The leaders called for all the captains to come together, which didn’t give Taelor time to grab a quick puff of air.
They told the captains that part of their role was always doing something a little more, a little harder, a little longer. They ordered the captains to run two more drills.
“I just broke down,” she said.
She prayed. She needed something to fill her lungs and give her strength. She knew she couldn’t do this alone.
“He provided,” Taelor said shaking her head. “I finished, and I don’t know how… at the end I just broke down because I felt like if I didn’t rely on Him, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
She saw a difference when she realized that she needed to take her identity out of the sport, go back to just enjoying it and thank God for the abilities He gave her to do what she loves.
Taelor started enjoying practice again. She started building stronger relationships with her teammates. Volleyball became less of a chore. It became the gift preteen Taelor had received.
Last summer, Taelor went back to the camp as an intern. She led a small group for a week and a half teaching other students the values she learned the previous summer. The experiences gave Taelor the confidence to bring some of the principles from camp back to UF.
“It helped me to see that I’ve come a long way,” she said. “It helped me to see that God has bigger plans for me.”
Not everything has been smooth sailing since Taelor’s camp experience, but she said it’s all a part of the growing process.
Stepping onto the court as a starter back in August didn’t give Taelor full security. Her starting spot could always be up for grabs.
“I still knew there was possibility that things can change,” she said.
Memories of her sophomore year came flying back as she recalled then-freshman Rachael Kramer taking the starting position with then-junior Rhamat Alhassan after Taelor’s poor initial performance.
“I started, and then I did terrible,” Taelor said. “That’s showing that (Wise) telling me I can start could still go wrong.”
She wasn’t resentful of the decision to start Taelor because it gave her time to process and figure out who she was.
“They were right about that decision, and I thank them for that,” she said.
But this has been a part of God’s plan all along, she said.
Upon returning from the camp as an intern this summer, Taelor prayed to be surrounded by people that were just as devoted as she was.
“He just kept opening doors for me,” she said. “I was praying for community and then He brought me Holly (Carlton).”
Carlton came from AIA at North Carolina and was familiar with the program. Since her transfer, Taelor and Carlton, along with freshman Thayer Hall, have become a close group.
“I was supposed to stay here because He was just lining everything up,” she said with a smile. “He’s answering me.”
Years of practice and standing on the sidelines has been a rough ride for the senior middle blocker.
“There were moments we recognize were difficult for Taelor, where she was just challenged in practice and not seeing success early on,” Wise said. “The key is to be able to have the perseverance and drive to work through it.”
Wise said despite those obstacles Taelor faced in the gym, it never changed who she was as a person and the kind of teammate she was during those years.
This year Wise has been most impressed with Taelor’s willingness to take more risks, especially because of her more reserved personality.
“It’s a story that has been told before and probably will be told again,” Wise said. “Not every player can come into this program and see immediate success. The opportunities come and then when they come take full advantage of it and that’s exactly what’s happened to Taelor.”
This year the same starting opportunity that was offered two years ago was up for grabs again. And Taelor has taken it to new heights.
The 6-foot-2 middle blocker has shined this season. During the team’s matchup against LSU just two weeks ago, she notched a career-high 12 kills. Just before that she logged a career-high 13 blocks in the match against Missouri.
And now she’s entering the second round of the NCAA Tournament with 181 kills and 22 blocks under her jersey.
She won’t be able to help thinking of all she’s accomplished as she takes the court for what could be the last time wearing a Gators jersey tonight against Florida Gulf Coast in Orlando at 7 p.m. for the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s now or never, and I don’t want to look back on my life thinking I didn’t give it my all,” she said. “There is more that I can give.”
Follow Mari Faiello on Twitter @faiello_mari or contact her at [email protected].
Correction: This article was corrected to show that Theresa Kellum is Taelor's nana, not her mother.