Julianna McFarland attacks through adversity

Carnegie-Mellon volleyball commit overcomes injury to continue to pursue her passion


From a young age, McLean senior Julianna McFarland was destined to be a sports star. In elementary school, she took on every sport she could, bouncing from practice to practice with no time to stop.

“I started [in second grade] with ice skating, and I did it until fourth grade because I got too tall,” McFarland said. “During that time I did gymnastics and cheerleading and in sixth grade I played basketball, and I sucked at it. There was a picture on the pamphlet [for youth basketball] with me on one side and all of the girls were down on the other side because I did not know what I was doing.”

Although McFarland’s six-foot-two frame might lead one to believe she would be a star of McLean’s basketball program, it was while playing volleyball that she discovered her niche.

“I tried volleyball and that was a lot more of my speed, because nobody knew what they were doing,” McFarland said. “My mom heard from a friend of hers of tryouts for a team. She had zero idea that it was for a travel team, but I made the team and that’s how I got my start. I really enjoyed how it was a sport of momentum. So much of it is how well your team is connected through moments of physically exerting [yourself] and that really got me hooked.”

McFarland’s high school volleyball career culminated in her commitment to Carnegie-Mellon university, becoming a Tartan for the Division III university located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“The program was so proud of her decision to continue her career at Carnegie Mellon and showed up in force at College Signing Day to support not only her, but also her two fellow signee [teammates],” McLean volleyball head coach Samantha Stewart said. “We can’t wait to watch their careers develop and support them from afar.”

McFarland’s journey was not without adversity. Before her senior season, McFarland suffered an injury which changed the course of her athletic career.

“I got injured on the first day of our last qualifier last season for club, so I really [felt like] I left them hanging. I was warming up and came down from a hit. It was a beautiful hit, however, something went wrong. After that tournament ended I went to the doctors and they said I tore my ACL,” McFarland said. “I had surgery a month later, on May 12, and I did physical therapy.”

After the injury, McFarland experienced many of the mental drawbacks that come with an injury of such magnitude. ACL tears require months of recovery and therapy, and many athletes who experience one never return to the form they were at prior to being injured.

“I didn’t think it [could] happen, until it did happen. I was very disappointed in myself. I was really angry,” McFarland said. “Maybe I wasn’t pushing myself enough. But it was one of those things where my body just kind of had to give out.”

McFarland, a naturally driven athlete, found the injury taxing in more ways than just the physiological side of it. Despite not being able to play herself, the senior found time to help out her teammates.

“I think the most difficult part for Julianna was spending so many hours traveling with the team without being able to fully get on the court,” said Nicole Mallus, a fellow senior committed to Cornell University. “But she was still at every practice, every game, and was always working to get stronger in any way her injury would allow. She was always there to support us, despite how frustrating being out was.”

Although the injury was an overall negative situation for the senior, there was some silver lining which occurred in her life outside of volleyball.

“My energy [before the injury] was so volleyball-oriented, so when that went away it forced me to make some changes in my social life. I couldn’t just rely on volleyball to make me happy,” McFarland said. “I had to lean into my friends and teammates a lot more. I just had to adapt.”

While sitting out most of her senior season was difficult to deal with, McFarland has been able to gain positive lessons from the time she was not able to play. She has come a long way from her physical state after her surgery, even playing in the Highlanders’ state tournament game against Alexandria City High School.

“A big lesson I learned is that I hate being off of the court, but at least now when I’m off the court, I still know how to support my teammates. Going to the college level, there’s no promise that I am going to play, I have to go and earn that spot,” McFarland said. “I’m going to be as good of a teammate on the court as I can be off the court. That’s what I can take away from this experience: how to treat my body better, how to be a better teammate when I’m not on the court, and how to become a well-rounded person.”

High school athletics: risks and rewards

Multimedia and additional reporting by Philip Rotondo