A Wisconsin star thought her volleyball career was over. Now she's leading a Final Four run. (2024)

MADISON, Wis. — On a Monday afternoon in late May, Sarah Franklin asked her 14 Wisconsin volleyball teammates to meet in her apartment. She had news she wanted to deliver in person, and this couldn’t wait.

Franklin, one of the best outside hitters in the country, informed them of the results from a CT scan that morning at the hospital. What she knew was that she would not be joining the Badgers on their preseason European exhibition tour later that week. The scan found three small blood clots in her right forearm stemming from a larger blood clot somewhere else in her body, which required surgery. That helped to explain why her hand was white, cold and clammy during practices and why every slam of the ball caused pain.

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What she didn’t know was whether she would ever be able to play competitive volleyball again. As the words left her mouth, tears filled the room during a moment that players say was both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

“To know that this health scare is coming up and it could potentially completely end her career, you’re almost sick for it,” Badgers setter MJ Hammill said. “We didn’t really want to share how scared we were or how absolutely gutted we were. It was just like, ‘You’re going to be OK. You’re going to get through this and we’re going to surround you with everything we have.’”

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Franklin’s journey through this season has been far from typical. But, despite serious snags along the way, she has persevered with a cheerful, confident outlook that has manifested itself on the court. Six and a half months after her initial scan, Franklin is thriving and is one of the biggest reasons No. 1 seed Wisconsin (30-3) has reached the Final Four against No. 2 seed Texas (26-4). The match will be played Thursday night at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., with the winner playing either No. 1 seed Nebraska or No. 1 seed Pitt for the national championship on Sunday afternoon.

Franklin, a 6-foot-4 senior from Lake Worth, Fla., who is known as “Frank the Tank,” is coming off a two-week stretch in which she was named the Big Ten player of the year and the MVP of her region in the NCAA Tournament. She also is a candidate for the American Volleyball Coaches Association national player of the year honor, which will be awarded Friday. She is in the midst of the best season of her career, including single-season highs in kills (473), kills per set (4.19) and hitting percentage (.305).

“She’s sort of like our motor,” Badgers middle blocker Carter Booth said. “She helps to make our system lethal, and that’s something that’s irreplaceable.”

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But before any of those accomplishments were possible, Franklin first needed to address the circulatory issue that threatened her career. After consulting with doctors, she learned there were two potential causes: thoracic outlet syndrome or the much rarer quadrilateral space syndrome. Thoracic outlet syndrome, which is a group of conditions that causes compression of the blood vessels and nerves between the neck and shoulder, was considered the more serious of the two. Quadrilateral space syndrome, which is compression of the nerve and artery in the shoulder, had a significantly shorter recovery period.

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Franklin said she was rolled into surgery around 1:30 a.m. early on a Thursday morning for a 5 1/2-hour procedure. She was awake for the first part when doctors performed an angiogram to examine blood flow through arteries and veins to determine the cause of her blood clots. She learned before the rest of the surgery that she had quadrilateral space syndrome, which she knew might give her the opportunity to play this season. Doctors found that the primary blood clot came from near her right shoulder.

“It was the best-case scenario because they had to just cut and tie off an artery and then it was recovery from there instead of having to have my first rib removed, which was the other option,” Franklin said.

She was out of surgery by 7 a.m. and then spent an hour in the intensive care unit on the same day her teammates left for Istanbul, Turkey. Franklin said the love and support she received from teammates and coaches was uplifting. Her teammates tried to involve her in their trip as much as they could through group chat message and FaceTime calls. Setter Izzy Ashburn put Franklin on a FaceTime call with the team while the Badgers were in Venice, Italy.

A Wisconsin star thought her volleyball career was over. Now she's leading a Final Four run. (3)

Sarah Franklin was named the Big Ten’s player of the year. (Courtesy of Wisconsin Athletics)

Wisconsin assistant coach Brittany Dildine slept at the hospital to be with Franklin. Before the Badgers left for their trip, head coach Kelly Sheffield sat next to her in the hospital and ate food, talked and watched cartoons on television with her. Sheffield’s message was one of positivity about what her return to the UW Field House in front of Badgers fans might feel like. He said it would be more raucous than when libero Shanel Bramschreiber returned from an NCAA-imposed 14-match suspension for having contact with an agent last season or when middle blocker Danielle Hart returned from an ACL injury.

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“I said, ‘Your story is even more inspiring,’” Sheffield said. “‘You’ll get through this and you will build yourself back up and you will be better than ever and this place will be louder than it’s ever been because of how you go about things.’”

The timing of discovery for Franklin’s ailment also played a significant factor. Team trainer Kristy Walker’s suggestion to undergo a scan before the European trip was crucial. Doctors told Sheffield that if Franklin had been on an airplane at such high altitude for hours while having blood clots, “it’s very likely that she would’ve lost a limb. And that might’ve been a best-case scenario.”

Instead, Franklin began her recovery by being placed on a blood thinner medication. For more than two months, she could not participate in any team drills because an errant volleyball to her head could result in a brain bleed. The initial timetable for her to return was after the regular season began. But she progressed so well that she was medically cleared earlier than expected. On Aug. 8, Franklin arrived at the UW Field House to share the good news at practice and was mobbed by her teammates. Sheffield gave her a high five, and Dildine embraced Franklin in a hug, a smile never leaving Franklin’s face.

What Franklin has provided the team this season is everything Sheffield thought was possible when she transferred from Michigan State to Wisconsin following the Badgers’ national championship run in 2021 — when the Badgers’ scouting report was to get her to the ground and hope she didn’t hit.

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Hammill described Franklin as someone with incredible mental and physical strength. Booth said Franklin’s talent and IQ are evident in matches because of her ability to recognize situations, such as the way she can read an opponent and place the ball in the right spot to avoid being blocked. Franklin said she has reined in the frustration she used to feel when things didn’t go her way on the court. She has learned to channel her competitiveness into a calm and confident presence that drastically impacts her team.

Franklin is a leader whose voice can constantly be heard during practice when sorting out on-court situations. Hammill said teammates gravitate toward her because of the respect and trust she has earned through months of hard work, including the way she handled herself after her circulatory issue arose.

“The best way I would put it — and I think Kelly said this before — is she’s an aircraft carrier,” Hammill said. “There will be points in time where she will put us all on her back and just go. I don’t think that’s a skill that everybody has necessarily. Frank has a way of saying, ‘We’re winning this thing.’ And it’s just so believable. Like, ‘I know something they don’t, and we’re going to pull this one out. And you better go along with it because we’re getting there.’”

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That’s the attitude of a fighter. That’s the attitude of someone who can lead a team to a national championship. But no matter what happens this week, Franklin recognizes she is fortunate to have already scored a major victory this season.

“I appreciate how much everything hurts every single day when I’m waking up in the morning,” Franklin said. “I’m like, ‘This is awesome. I could’ve not had this.’ So it really put things into perspective for me to be able to just be so grateful to be out on this court.”

(Top photo: Courtesy of Wisconsin Athletics)

A Wisconsin star thought her volleyball career was over. Now she's leading a Final Four run. (5)A Wisconsin star thought her volleyball career was over. Now she's leading a Final Four run. (6)

Jesse Temple is a staff writer for The Athletic covering the Wisconsin Badgers. He has covered the Badgers beat since 2011 and previously worked for FOX Sports Wisconsin, ESPN.com and Land of 10. Follow Jesse on Twitter @jessetemple

A Wisconsin star thought her volleyball career was over. Now she's leading a Final Four run. (2024)
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