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What comes next: Cal's Savannah Rennie is awaiting a new liver to make her return to the volleyball court

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APRIL 26, 2016

Most of the time, our heroes come from history or are forced upon us by the spotlight of fame, whether on the screen or on the field. They can come from our families or even be fictional characters in a book.

But rarely, incredibly few and far between, are they our peers. The people younger or equal to us aren’t often doing things or getting past feats that we can’t even imagine.

And if you meet Savannah Rennie, you might just find yourself among the small portion of people who can look up to those they look in the eye.

By now, most people have heard her story and know that it is clearly one worth telling. But after sitting down with her, you realize that she is so much more than her story.

Savannah is indeed at war with her liver.

But it is by no means the main character in this tale.

Like many athletes who unabashedly have similar stories of how they came to play at the collegiate level, Savannah grew up playing sports alongside her older brother, Luc. He played hockey, so Savannah learned to ice skate at the age of 2.

Baseball and soccer were among her sports of choice throughout her young career in San Diego, but it was baseball that really shot to the top, a love that she still has to this day. The realization that she couldn’t play this sport in the future, however, forced a new sport into the top spot. It was a friend’s suggestion to try volleyball that allowed Savannah to find her final sport of choice.

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

“I went to tryouts and the coach was like, ‘Can we please have you on our team,’ and I was like, ‘For fun, I’ll do it,’ ” Savannah says. “From then on out it kind of got carried over and it got more and more serious every year and I loved doing it. It was definitely more my element than baseball, in the long run more of a future.”

A future it truly did provide. Savannah became accustomed to college coaches coming to watch future Cal teammate Maddy Kerr play in high school. Having them present at her practices and games was quite common. But having one come up to her after a morning practice her sophomore year was completely unexpected.

Cal wanted her, and it wanted her so much that it was already prepared to offer her a scholarship.

Similar to many Pac-12 athletes, Savannah made her visits to the other California Pac-12 schools but ultimately landed at UC Berkeley. And when a scholarship opened up for spring 2015, she jumped at the opportunity to start college early. Because that’s how much she wanted to be at UC Berkeley.

“It ultimately came down to I need to challenge myself and I wasn’t being challenged at home, and it was like if I want to play at the next level, I have to start now,” Savannah remembers. “I just pedaled to the metal my last semester and did online classes, which were not a walk in the park. I’ll do anything to get here. So I finished them off, got here early and it was the best decision I made.”

But it’s when everything seems perfect and seems like the main character has finally found their place that far too often, things begin to go in the wrong direction.

After a successful spring semester spent becoming a part of her new team and continuing to improve her skills, Savannah traveled back to San Diego for a short time in between classes.

That’s when she got sick. On June 4, she began to feel ill, and when she had a fever of 105 degrees the next day, it became clear this was no common illness. In and out of hospitals and urgent care Savannah went, as no one could figure out exactly what was wrong with her. She was put on a variety of medications and antibiotics. Different tests. Everything.

Eventually, on Sept. 17, after school and volleyball practice had started, it was determined that she has a rare genetic liver disease — congenital hepatic fibrosis with portal hypertension. It can cause an enlarged liver and increased pressure in the system that brings blood from different organs to the liver. The disease is present from birth, and it is typically seen in babies or the elderly, not healthy teenaged volleyball players.

But she remained at school for the fall anyway. Playing on the team was not an option for Savannah, but that didn’t change the way she felt about volleyball.

“Her love for volleyball, it just took over immediately, you don’t know how much you love something until it’s been taken away from you,” says Renee Rennie, Savannah’s mom. “She’s told me, ‘I never knew how much I really, really loved the game of volleyball until I was told I couldn’t play.’ ”

Savannah continued to attend practices. These ended up being the best parts of her day, when she could forget about her problems and truly be a part of the team. But her problems were still very much present. Dealing with a serious injury in the middle of taking classes at college is no easy feat.

“People are like ‘Oh my gosh, you go to Berkeley and you’re dealing with a new liver disease,’ ” Savannah says. “There were times when I couldn’t make it to class and would have to deal with the consequences. Some teachers don’t really care, and there’s times when I almost missed exams, but I’d have to pick myself together and go take this exam with 105 fever. It’s just not realistic, but I’ve had to do it.”

After spending a semester watching her team slide to one of the last spots in the Pac-12 and finish under .500, Savannah became very sick again around winter break. And things began to get even more real during the spring semester.

When sitting in the locker room administering her own IV as she did everyday, she got a phone call from her mother asking if she remembered having a conversation about getting a liver transplant with her doctor. But Savannah had pushed it out of her mind.

With her entire family on the phone, Renee informed her that the best thing to get her back out onto the court was to get the transplant. And instead of pushing off the surgery that would most likely have to happen in a few years anyway, Savannah made the decision to get the transplant as soon as possible and give her the biggest chance of finding her way back out there.

Things then moved very quickly. It was time to fix Savannah and get her a new liver.
Her best chance?
Moving to Indiana, where six to eight livers can become available in a single week as opposed to getting on a two- to three-year waiting list in California. The only marginally good thing about needing a new liver at age 19 is that it put her high on the priority list, moving from the 20s to all the way down to number nine.

But getting a liver and moving halfway across the country is no cheap feat. So her mother set up a “gofundme” account to help raise money for Savannah. As with so many people that we look up to, Savannah was initially incredibly reluctant to put out such a public request for assistance.

“(My mom) knows I’m stubborn. It took me hours to do it, I was sitting there like, ‘no.’ But once I did it and saw all the response, people coming out of the woodwork from baseball when I was younger, volleyball from across the country and across the seas from our national team,” Savannah says.

The support came from all over including Pac-12 rivals Stanford and Oregon State who wanted to see if there was anything more they could do for Savannah. An overwhelming amount of love and concern from around the world had a huge impact that Savannah could never have expected.

“Just knowing I have the volleyball community behind me and all of Berkeley and Cal support me is unreal, and I never really realized how much support I had. I knew I had support, but not to this magnitude,” Savannah says. “It drives me to get through this for them and not just myself.”

And to date, she has received more than $100,000 of support. She has moved up to the second spot on the waiting list for a liver, but waiting for so long has been taxing. Not only is she waiting for a healthy liver to become available, but the liver has to be from someone with a blood type of A-negative or O-negative.

Living in Indianapolis with her mom, the two have been occupying their days until the phone rings. But there isn’t always something to do, and that’s when the times get hard.

“Over the last three to four weeks, her spirits have really plummeted. As a mom, it’s been extra brutal,” Rennie said. “It’s been extremely difficult to keep her positive. Because there are times when you just need to let her cry, and there are times when you just need her to be angry and sad.”

Waiting for the liver is the hardest part. Eventually, it will become available, and she still has the goal of returning to the team and helping it improve on last season’s performance. Keeping those dreams alive is exactly what is pushing Savannah through this process.

“I want to contribute, volleyball is what I want to do, it’s my passion. I will do anything to play again,” Savannah says. “It’s a scary process, but if it’s going to put me back on the court doing what I love. The vision of playing again and getting my first kill, I get emotional about it because I’ve been waiting so long.”

Savannah Rennie is awaiting a new liver to make her triumphant return to the volleyball court.

Contact Alaina Getzenberg at [email protected].Follow her on Twitter @agetzenberg

APRIL 26, 2016