TAMPA — The latest member of the University of Tampa's volleyball program is trilingual, having taught herself Spanish and sign language. She loves reading, painting and ceramics. One day, she hopes to become a neonatologist.
And for nearly five years, she has suffered from complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a rare disease of the sympathetic nervous system, which causes constant intense nerve pain. She also has a handful of other medical maladies, including nerve, tissue and digestive disorders.
She's Natalia Rijos, 17, a junior at Steinbrenner High School who was thrilled Sept. 28 when she "signed" to join UT's volleyball team. It's all part of Team IMPACT, an organization that helps children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses by making them part of college athletic programs.
The idea is for the charismatic Rijos to be inspired by the work ethic, teamwork and camaraderie of Spartan volleyball players. But who's the real inspiration?
"There are probably days we take things for granted or even complain about what we deal with, but the truth is we get to play volleyball, go to college and it's all a privilege," said UT sophomore middle blocker Taylor Fosler. "I have a feeling that Natalia is going to impact us in a way we don't even know. It will be profound."
"We have all done some volunteer activities and they were great, but this is a really cool opportunity," said UT senior libero Kasey Reynolds. "She's coming to us. She's part of our team. She will be our friend and she will see how we do things here. She's part of us now."
On the so-called "Draft Day," Rijos went to the UT campus with her mother, Myrna Concepcion, and younger sister Isabella.
It had all the trappings of a signing day ceremony. Rijos signed a national letter of intent. She was presented with a UT Spartans team shirt and a dozen red roses. Reynolds and UT coach Chris Catanach formally welcomed her to the team.
Rijos, who uses a wheelchair, will have several pre-arranged opportunities to be part of UT volleyball events, such as practices and games.
"I think this can be life-changing for kids who never had the experience of doing something like this," coach Catanach said. "We all get caught up in our lives and how tough we have it. Then you meet somebody who has it so much harder. You realize we have it so good. And it all becomes so much better when we can reach out and help."
Rijos' mother said she already has been touched by the dedication and sensitivity of the UT volleyball players.
"Natalia is beginning an amazing journey, new relationships with these players, and she is very excited about it," Concepcion said. "It's hard for Natalia with all she goes through. But these players, they all want to know Natalia on a personal level. They are beautiful souls. This has given us all such an amazing boost."
Concepcion said keeping up with her daughter's medical care is a full-time job. Beyond that, Concepcion recently brought to Tampa some family members who suffered devastating damage during Hurricane Maria in their native Puerto Rico.
Get real-time alerts about your favorite teams
Subscribe to our free Breaking Sports News newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
"All you can do is go day by day, try your best and rely on your faith," she said. "There are some days when it seems like a lot. But you keep going."
Rijos describes her pain as "burning and stabbing" sensations. The sensitivity of her extremities can make a stiff wind seem like knives are being shot through her body.
Concepcion marvels at her daughter's strength and toughness, qualities that are often associated with athletes. As Rijos gets a glance into UT volleyball's athletic world, the players said in turn they will receive some healthy perspective on what really matters in life.
"When you get right down to it, all of us should be trying to do the best we can with what we have," Reynolds said. "In that way, we're kind of all the same. We should all try to help each other. It will be great to have Natalia with us and I think we're all going to learn a lot."