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How Haley Hallgren overcame a cancer scare to thrive for UCLA beach volleyball

She didn’t quite look like the player Stein Metzger remembered. The UCLA beach volleyball coach Haley Hallgren thought he came out of the transfer portal was the one whose play on the No. 3 court helped USC win the 2021 national championship. The one to provide the first run in the championship game that stopped UCLA from winning its third consecutive NCAA title. Metzger remembered the powerful topspin serve, versatility and offensive power.

But on her first day at Mapes Beach, the former USC Beach Champion and Michigan indoor player could barely keep up with the team in post-practice practice. Behind raised eyebrows, Metzger hoped the transfer would improve soon.

Hallgren also thought of that old player.

A two-time All-Pac-12 second-team winner, she barely had the strength to take the field. She was ranked 15th in USC history for wins in two games, but her coughing spells became so intense that she strained her own muscles. She was a national champion who almost gave up on her professional dreams because it just hurt too much.

So no, Haley Hallgren isn’t the player she used to be.

She may be better.

Haley Hallgren, far left, celebrates with USC teammates Audrey Nourse (24) and Olivia Bakos (21) after the Trojans’ NCAA title win over UCLA in May 2021.

(C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

None of the scans could give Hallgren a reason why her team-leading fitness got worse every time she took the beep test — a running test to assess aerobic fitness — at USC or why her coughing became more frequent. She came to accept that life as a college athlete should be so exhausting, even though she once felt so weak that she had to crawl to the bathroom in her apartment.

“Am I just in my head?” Hallgren wondered each time if a new test didn’t reveal a reason for her increasing symptoms.

With no explanation for her health issues, Hallgren continued to play and went on to record an 84-34 record in doubles for USC. Hallgren helped USC win the 2021 national championship, then transferred to Michigan to play indoor volleyball, but her health never got better.

After five years of steadily progressing symptoms, two sports at two schools, and a national championship, Hallgren finally got her health questions answered. She was not a baby. She was not dramatic. She was not destined for a new, always tired normal.

She played with a cancer on her lung.

It felt like a deep breath that she held for years.

“You don’t think you’re going to hear those words at 22, 23,” Hallgren said recently at UCLA’s Acosta Center. “But honestly, I was really relieved. … Everyone else was kind of freaked out, but I was like, ‘Thank God, you can do something about this.’ I don’t have to feel this way anymore.”

A year away from her diagnosis and now on her way to her third college, Hallgren speaks about the ordeal with a blunt level-headedness. It was the nonstop coughing and collapsed lung that she had been playing with for three days that led doctors to notice a blockage in her lung. She still wonders if she could have been more aggressive with doctors about her symptoms in order to get an earlier diagnosis. She got the news that she had cancer while shopping at the supermarket for grilled cheese ingredients. It rained.

Similar to how she feels in her sport, where she wants to be on the field for the final points to check her team’s result, Hallgren was relieved that it was her in this situation instead of someone else. Hallgren was told she did not need chemotherapy and underwent surgery to remove the tumor, which likely began to grow after her senior year of high school, and then a lobectomy two months later.

The second procedure removed the top half of her left lung. She was lucky, she emphasized.

Not only did her recent year-long scan yield clear results, Hallgren was also able to have the lobectomy performed laparoscopically, a less invasive technique than the normal strategy that involves a 10-inch incision in a patient’s back. The typical method would have severed the big muscles Hallgren needed to keep playing, eliminating her chance for a comeback. Before surgery, Hallgren’s doctor said that because the tumor had crept into her airway, there was about a 5% chance they could do the less invasive procedure. Even then, there would be no guarantee that her lung capacity would return to playing levels.

Hallgren was not worried about the possible end of her athletic career. So much more happened, she said.

“I definitely remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’m glad I’m not playing a beach game right now,'” she said with a laugh.

Beach volleyball was Hallgren’s love.

Although she was a varsity indoor player for four years for Southlake Carroll High in Texas, playing setter, libero and outside hitter, the high school beach All-American and six-year member of the junior beach national team hoped to make a professional career on the sand. That’s why she chose to play beach exclusively at USC, where she graduated in three years with a bachelor’s degree and added a master’s degree.

But she lacked the energy of indoor volleyball and the camaraderie of playing with five other players on the court.

Hallgren praised Michigan coaches and teammates for their support after she received her diagnosis and their utterly light-hearted reception when she returned. When Hallgren finally played in Big Ten games she missed the previous season, her Michigan teammates were sometimes affected by what she was going through. Someone would break through a quiet moment to suddenly joke, “Hey, remember when you had cancer?”

Sometimes a laugh was the only way to get through it, Hallgren recently recalled.

Hallgren returned to practice in a limited capacity four months after her lobectomy, appearing in 17 games for the Wolverines with seven starts last fall. Hallgren, a 6-foot-1 utility player, recorded 42 kills, 60 digs and 18 blocks.

The indoor season was a welcome springboard for Hallgren, who knew she’d need to ramp up her fitness over winter break if she’d be ready to compete for the Bruins on the beach this spring.

Having missed her earlier, Metzger was determined to get Hallgren this time. He didn’t mind that she hadn’t played on the beach in two years and had less than two fully functional lungs.

“How can you say no to someone like Haley?” Metzger said.

Hallgren was direct during the transfer process and told Metzger she was not in beach shape. He signed her anyway, mostly because he didn’t want to play that player with the withering serve he remembered from USC.

“In my mind, it was worth taking a chance just for the caliber she is,” Metzger said. “I thought her mentality would be an asset to our team, just adding something to our culture with the fact that she would be extremely grateful just to be able to play after going through something like that.”

With a team returning nine of the ten starters to clinch the preseason No. 1 ranking, Metzger was unsure how Hallgren would fit into the lineup. Her versatility is an invaluable puzzle piece at UCLA, as she can be an attacker in one game and a defender in another.

Hallgren started five of UCLA’s six games last weekend as the Bruins went 6-0 in their season-opening tournament in Honolulu. Playing on the No. 5 court, Hallgren and senior Rileigh Powers won each of their matches in straight sets. Metzger no longer notices that Hallgren lags behind the team in wind sprints. Hallgren said she had to relearn how to breathe with her limited lung capacity after the lobectomy.

Not only did she return to the indoor beach, but Hallgren was also figuring out a new style of beach volleyball at UCLA, where the Bruins depend on center field handsets to lead their offense through setplays. USC, the defending champions and where Hallgren’s younger sister still plays, relied on physical wide attacks. To make the transition, Hallgren has become one of the “most coachable” players UCLA has ever had, Metzger said.

“Some people really hold on to their mistakes and the negative self-talk can only tarnish them. She doesn’t seem to have any of that,” Metzger said. “There seems to be a lightness and freedom that she can go out and compete even when things don’t go their way and that’s honestly refreshing.”

Hallgren, still experiencing some numbness in her back and random stabbing pains through her sternum a year after her lobectomy, was nervous about returning to the beach. She always caught herself comparing her current skill level to the player she was at USC, wondering why she wasn’t playing the way she was before.

But she learned to let go of that player.

“I have two months left to play this sport,” said Hallgren. “You might as well enjoy it and go for it as hard as you can.”

Hallgren felt for so long that she was in an internal struggle just to step onto the field. Playing the last indoor season at Michigan made her feel like her fiery self again. An even better version will be on display at Westwood.

“I felt my competitive spirit coming back, but I was still trying to figure things out,” said Hallgren. “I’m excited to just be ready to go out and kill people again.”