Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Bigger Than Volleyball

N Our Voice By Keonilei Akana

“I'm sorry Keonilei, but we found a tumor.”

When those words came out of my doctor's mouth, my heart instantly sunk to the floor.

I mean, how does a person even react to news like that?

I was in total shock.

There I was living a normal teenage life, doing normal teenage things, and completely out of nowhere, nothing was normal again. Suddenly, I had this potentially life-threatening fight on my hands. And you know what? It wasn’t even the most important thing on my mind at that point.

All I could think about was volleyball. I pushed my very life aside for a game.

But in that moment, when hearing that news from the doctor, volleyball was no longer the priority for my parents. It was no longer the priority for my siblings. It was no longer the priority for my friends and teammates. 

It took some soul searching, but I finally came to the realization that it was no longer the priority for me, either.

I’ve dedicated my whole life to playing volleyball, but it isn’t my life. I’m more than just an athlete. I’m a living, breathing human being with other goals and dreams. I love this game more than I can put into words, but my health comes first.

My life is more important than any sport. 

And through all of this, I came to this important realization. 

The Running Emergency


It all started during a routine conditioning exercise. 

I was preparing alongside my sister for my first ever high school tryout. It wasn’t anything crazy—just a timed 1.5-mile run. We were side-by-side and stride-for-stride. 

And then we weren’t. I fainted.

Before I realized what was going on, I was being rushed to the hospital. I immediately started thinking about all of the possible reasons for my predicament. 

I was coming back from a huge national tournament, a beach tournament, and a couple of camps. What can I say? It was a busy summer for me. I was trying to fit that conditioning training in at the very end, and it just felt like all of the hard work and lack of rest finally caught up with me.

But things were more serious than I could have ever imagined—far, far more serious.

My doctor found a tumor on the left side of my brain. My parents were absolutely devastated over the news more out of concern for me. As for myself, on the other hand, only one thought popped into my head: I can’t believe I’m going to miss my high school tryout.

I just felt like I should have been there, you know? There I was being scheduled for brain surgery, while the other girls were getting ready for the season. It’s hard watching the sport you love and not being able to be a part of it.

But things could have been worse. I could have had some long, drawn-out recovery process that kept me away from playing for good. Yet, three weeks after my recovery, I was back on the field completing a private tryout for my high school coach and earning a spot on the team.

Not everybody was on board with me jumping back into that fire right after surgery. My mom especially - she was concerned enough to even ask the coach to consider making me a team manager instead. She was just being a mom and doing her best to look out for me.

My coach explained how playing the game would be therapeutic for me and potentially help in my recovery. I’ll never forget his willingness to have a meaningful heart-to-heart conversation with my mother and help her understand what I was feeling.

Volleyball has long been my escape from the real world. It’s something that I’ve been able to turn to and lose myself in almost every day. But in the back of my mind, I knew there was always a possibility the tumor would come back.

I knew there was a chance that part of my fight was far from over.

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The Unbreakable Spirit


Out of sight is out of mind.

That was sort of my approach to the entire thing. Kind of, at least.

I mean, I did have to go back into the doctor’s office for an MRI checkup every three months. But at least I was back to playing volleyball and feeling somewhat like my old self.

The Akana duo was back on the floor putting in work together the same way we did as kids. I’ve been asked to play above my age group ever since I started volleyball. So me and my older sister were always on the court together. It felt good to put all of that tumor stuff in the rearview and just focus on the game. It felt good to feel like me again.

Well, at least until it all came back. 

It wasn’t nearly as shocking as it was the first time. I guess out of sight never really was out of mind because I always knew it was a possibility. I always knew I could be in for another fight.

I immediately had to undergo surgery to have the tumor removed for a second time, but this time, I also had to do radiation. Honestly, that’s when I started to look at things much differently. It’s easy to stuff everything down when you aren’t experiencing much of the physical symptoms. Sure, I fainted while out for a run, but I was back on the court a few weeks later. Not everyone gets to say that after brain surgery.

But those radiation sessions brought me to a new reality.

It was the realization that I wasn’t superhuman. My body was physically starting to break down. You start to lose your hair and constantly feel fatigued. Things are different when you go through something like that.

I pushed through and continued to practice, but deep down, I could feel the difference in my body. I could feel I wasn’t myself.

That’s when I realized my health was more important than volleyball. It’s when I understood my life meant more than the sport I played. It was like a night and day change in me as a person and an athlete. Those experiences helped me become stronger both mentally and physically.

And through it all, I never gave up.

The two surgeries couldn’t break me. The radiation sessions couldn’t break me. The possibility of losing the one thing I’ve loved doing my entire life couldn’t break me.

If I could take it all back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

A Life Worth Living


Everything I’ve gone through put me on the path to the University of Nebraska.

Coach Jaylen Reyes is from Hawaii, too, and he’d always travel down to the islands to watch and support the local teams. I was actually playing a completely new position on my team during the tournament he watched us play in. Who would have ever thought I’d actually end up being recruited for that position?

But I deserved it. Everything that I’d gone through in the years leading up to that moment—all of the work I’d put in—was for that opportunity. It was for a chance to play volleyball at a Division I level for a Big Ten school like Nebraska.

I was born to do this.

I’m just thankful to be alive and have an opportunity to continue doing what I love doing.

Things have been far from normal this year with Covid-19 pushing back the season. It was super sad seeing things get canceled when the team was looking forward to playing. But it also isn’t the end of the world, either.

I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two about setbacks. I have the scars to prove it. I’ve learned to appreciate life beyond volleyball. I’m Keonilei the person before Keonilei the athlete. That mentality is the only way I can really grow as both.

Even to this day, I live my life knowing there’s a chance the tumor might grow back. I know the fight for my life might be far from over.

I still go in for my regular MRI checkups every six months now, and honestly, I do get concerned because you never know what the scans will show. But I also refuse to let that fear hold me back. 

Today, I'm just grateful to be here at Nebraska and live my dream. 

And nothing is going to change that.

resize (1) (1)Nebraska libero/defensive specialist Kaylei Akana #6 VB Posed Photos 2020 Nebraska Women's Volleyball Photo by Scott Bruhn/NU Communications