Williamsburg’s Mackenzie Bigbee looks across the volleyball net with a happy confidence now. But years ago, her heart was full of sorrow.
Bigbee’s grandmother, Edna Rathje, was one of her biggest fans. Rathje also struggled with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
“At the dinner table, she would choke a lot and pull out a paper bag to steady her breathing. That really scared me a lot,” Bigbee said. “We’d all break down and cry together.”
Even though Rathje has died, she’s remained a source of inspiration for her grandaughter.
“Do it for your grandma,” her parents told her.
“It had a huge impact on my life,” Bigbee said. “When I train, I think of that.”
Bigbee, a driven four-sport athlete, has been named The Des Moines Register’s female athlete of the year.
She earned 17 varsity letters, five in softball and four in volleyball, track and basketball.
Bigbee elected to play volleyball at Iowa State. The 6-foot outside hitter also drew college recruiting interest in basketball and track.
She is studying engineering. Bigbee graduated fourth in her class and had a 3.93 grade-point average, tackling Advanced Placement classes in physics and calculus.
Her multitasking skills drew notice from coaches and teachers in her school.
“She’s the example we use at our school when a kid says, ‘I don’t have time to play three or four sports,’ ” said Aaron Fedderson, Bigbee’s basketball coach.
Bigbee earned Des Moines Sunday Register Elite all-state volleyball honors last fall. She averaged 4.7 kills and hit .323.
In basketball, she averaged 13 points and eight rebounds a game. She was a two-time all-state forward.
Bigbee qualified for the state track meet in the high jump, and she batted .527 in softball this past summer.
“She’s an athletic freak,” Fedderson said. “Whatever sport she was in, it was a priority. That’s probably the biggest compliment you can give a kid these days.”
Bigbee took up sports at an early age, though she was quiet and shy.
“I didn’t even want to play T-ball,” Bigbee said. “My parents made me. They gave me sunglasses to wear and said, ‘Here, wear these. No one can see you.’ “
She started playing ASA softball and AAU basketball by fifth grade. Track followed in junior high.
Basketball was her first love, but she eventually opted to play volleyball in college.
Bigbee said she never takes her own athletic skills for granted because she’s seen the horrors of ALS first hand.
She watched grandmother lose mobility in her legs. Random moments of laughter and tears struck her.
Bigbee still carries inspiring memories of her grandmother with her on the court.
“She always put on a brave face for us,” Bigbee said.