Story by Jessica Deese and photos by Kate Reali
Superheroes have a distinctive origin story. They descend from another realm. Trauma shapes their life journey. Power and pain are both harnessed to help them accomplish miraculous feats, usually helping others. Ann Schilling fits this mythical archetype. Except, she’s not make believe. She’s the real deal.
As an average volleyball player at best, I’m grateful I had the chance to be coached by Ann. At the time, Bayside Academy in Daphne was even smaller than it is today, and every able body was welcomed on any squad. As a chronic joiner, signing up for volleyball at Bayside with my gifted athletic friends seemed like a fun thing to do.
Lots of folks get to play on sports teams. It’s basically an American rite of passage. However, not everyone gets to be a part of a legendary program. Under her leadership, Bayside’s volleyball team has captured 25 state titles and four runner-ups. The Alabama High School Athletic Association keeps coming up with ways to try and level the playing field. Bayside (and other private schools) are required to compete in larger divisions based on a multiplier and overall playing record. As long as Bayside dominates, they will continue to move up.
Currently, she is tied in the top spot nationally for longest consecutive state title winning streak. She’s brought home the blue trophy for Bayside 18 years in a row, while miraculously battling Stage 4 breast cancer for the past two years. See what I mean? She’s got superpowers. Let’s dig into her origin story:
Ann does not descend from aliens or demigods. Instead, she inherited her remarkable traits from her mother, Clara, another superhuman. I knew her as the kind matriarch cheering from the stands at every match. We loved having her there, and we could tell she loved being there. Most of all, though, we could tell how much she and Ann loved one another.
Ann was a welcome addition to their large, loving family. After having four children, each just two years apart, Ann’s father was unexpectedly widowed when his first wife succumbed to cancer’s vicious aggression. In time, his friendship with Clara bloomed into romance and they were married.
Clara made no distinction in the love she had for Ann and her siblings. In fact, I never knew Clara wasn’t their birth mother until midway through this interview. Her love erased all otherness and offered a place of refuge and healing in the wake of their loss. Love is love and family is family. This proved to be even more true and necessary as the family faced yet another huge devastation.
At the age of 10, Ann lost her father to kidney cancer. The weight of such grief would be too much for most to bear. We could understand if Clara broke the family up and sent the children off to relatives. We could understand if she turned bitter, letting the pain reign. We could understand if she lost her faith. Yet, she did none of those things.
“We lived off her modest wages from her part-time job, and I guess Social Security. I never really thought to ask. … She never complained or expressed struggle. We were told ‘no’ a lot, but we had everything we needed.” Ann continues, with a slight shake in her voice, “She believed God would provide, and He did.”
Clara’s faith enabled her to move forward in hope and love. “The church was mom’s extended family,” Ann explains. Despite having to work and raise a household of children on her own, Clara was a regular at early morning Daily Mass, and hosted weekly prayer groups at home.
“We would do anything to get out of the prayer meeting, but there was no excuse that was good enough for Clara Schilling,” she recounts with laughter. Her voice cracks as she continues to reflect. “She was tough; but I wouldn’t trade it. Who I am now is because of her. “
As for Ann, athletics helped her cope with her grief. “Siblings, cousins, and friends played all the time. We were competitive, but also proud of each other,” she shares. Most days, she could be found playing ball at the gym or playground or around the neighborhood.
In addition to providing a solid-faith formation, the Mobile Catholic community also offered a place for her athletic skills to be supported and developed through its Catholic Youth Organization league, commonly known as the CYO. Ann was immersed in this environment, playing on her first team in first grade.
It was clear Ann had talent. But she also had drive. All parochial schools fed to McGill-Toolen, and she watched her older sisters play on their elite volleyball squad known by its intimidating moniker, the Dirty Dozen, coached by the iconic Becky Dickinson. “My goal was to play for Coach D. She is another person that helped shape and mold me.” Under her leadership, Ann got a taste of championships, winning multiple titles in volleyball and basketball.
At the same time, Coach D’s husband, affectionately known as Big D, was working at Bayside as Athletic Director. Its fledging volleyball program was beginning to have success. “We came over and gave some clinics at Bayside. …I loved the school and felt a connection to it; part of me even wished I went there. “
Fast forward a few years. It was 1987, and Ann was a fresh Auburn graduate looking for employment. Still at Bayside, Big D called to see if she was interested in being their basketball and volleyball coach. She accepted, and her marvelous professional journey began.
Her personal journey has proved to be even more astounding. Sickness and loss came back to haunt her in new and different ways. In May 2013, she lost her sister Dottie to breast cancer. Then, just six months later, her mother passed. In February 2018, Ann received her own cancer diagnosis.
Here again we can easily imagine her storyline moving in unhappy directions. We could understand if she went on medical leave to seek treatment at facilities far away. We could understand if she became angry at cancer being such a prominent part of her life. We could understand if she lost her faith. Yet, she didn’t. Drawing upon the example of her mother and exercising the spiritual lessons learned over a lifetime, she instinctively gravitated to her faith.
“There wasn’t any question in my mind that there is a God and He can do amazing things.” After early morning mass on March 1, 2018, she remembers lifting up a prayer of complete and total surrender, at peace with the prospect of dying, but determined to live in a new, transformed way.
Confident in the doctors here, she began treatment. Her body responded positively. “I felt better every time I received chemotherapy. By the end, I only had one spot left on my liver.”
She felt so good, she continued with her coaching, leading them to another state championship in the fall of that year. Returning home, she shifted back to her health and went to schedule a follow-up PET scan to see if the spot on her liver had changed. She was met with bad news on two fronts. First, insurance would not approve the scan. Secondly, she learned that Coach D was ill with pancreatic cancer.
Again, rather than picking the pathway of panic, she was at peace. “I realized my checkups were on hold so that I could be a help to Coach D. I just trusted that I was going to be OK.”
Finally, last March, she received the needed scan. The results were nothing short of miraculous. Defying all medical explanations, her liver looked completely normal. “No one is promised anything. I just didn’t want to limit what God could do. God is bigger than any disease. I feel healed.
“For me, cancer was more of a blessing than a curse. I needed changing. It changed my heart. I was self-consumed and I got humbled. I feel better. I’m so much happier. I get way more out of my days, and I have this platform to help others, which means so much. I’m so grateful, and I give God all the glory.”
This fall, my daughter’s fifth grade CYO volleyball team was set to play a rare home game in our modest little gym in Daphne. When I walked in, I was touched by the size of the crowd. Parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, and friends all crowded in to support these young girls. Just before the game began, Ann and Coach D walked in. Time slowed down for just a moment as I took in this scene where superheroes were in our midst, and girls were being formed to carry on in this beautiful story. In that liminal moment, I felt the palpable presence of Love, the one true transformative superpower, binding us all together. It was marvelous, and I’m so grateful.