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BY RASHAD MILLIGAN
ATLANTA — Crystal Lee is smooth during volleyball matches as a senior outside hitter at Georgia State, but she described her four years on campus as “rough.”
You have to hear this story.
First, here's some background: Lee became the leader of the Georgia State program once school legend Eliza Zachary graduated after her sophomore season. Each match, Lee walks on the floor, sporting the No. 45 jersey to honor her late cousin who died at the age of 45, with a look of determination to win every point. She plays with a passion similar to other recent Georgia State greats such as Deidra Bohannon. After each point, Lee’s peers and younger teammates glance her way for encouraging words or tips before the next serve.
Then there is this regarding Lee: Despite battling injuries her entire collegiate career and a tragedy involving her mother, she led Georgia State last season in kills, kills per set and services aces. She currently tops the Panthers in kills and kills per set this season.
Still, Lee has encountered hurdles at Georgia State worse than trying to avoid double hits in competition.
There were issues involving Lee’s parents, for instance. The Illinois native moved to the downtown Atlanta campus in 2015, when her mom and dad were going through a “huge” divorce, she said. Lee struggled in the classroom, and as a student-athlete, she only had the opportunity to come home and see her family a handful of days out of the year.
The memories aren’t pleasant.
“It was a blur,” Lee said. “I really can’t remember [trips home]. I just knew it was nothing healthy … I’m not going to sit here and be oblivious of the matter. I knew my parents were not happy, and it was just a matter of time. I think me going to college was my dad’s way of cutting that cord.”
Lee’s mom went into a deep depression after the separation, especially when her daughter returned to campus for her sophomore season. That year, Lee found ways to prosper despite her parents’ situation. Following a rocky time on the floor as a freshman, she started 19 matches and finished the season third on the team in kills as a second-year player.
“(My) freshman year, (I) didn’t excel to my highest potential. I knew I had more,” Lee said. “I just knew no matter what, that I could not go back to freshman year.”
Despite Lee’s steady rise toward stardom in volleyball, the rest of her life quickly went from “rough” to tragic. Before her junior season, her mother committed suicide. Only a handful of coaches and teammates knew of the death at the time. Lee continued to go to practice, class and campus events such as basketball games with her teammates. They sat under the basket at the GSU Sports Arena, just like old times. Hiding her pain from the public was “very unhealthy,” she said.
“I think it was more of not showing weakness,” Lee said. “I wanted to be that person that’s just level-headed, who can persevere through anything and not let my traumatic events be an excuse for failure or anything else. It was more of just taking care of business and leaving things at the door for practices, matches, academics or any of that.”
Lee fought through the emotions she suffered after her mom’s death to make the Dean’s List both semesters of her junior year. She also finished with her best season on the court up to the point.
If none of this made sense to others, it did to Lee.
“The grace of God, honestly,” Lee said, before laughing. “I laugh because it’s so true. I really don’t know. I was at an all-time low, and I was so low that it scared me. It scared the coaches, I don’t know. The grace of God is all I can tell you for that.”
This past summer, Lee did an internship involving the Public Health Leader Fellowship Program (PHFLP), which was in conjunction with Morehouse College and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She had to pick a public issue and create something to bring awareness to the topic. Her group’s target was mental health, and she, along with her group members, targeted youth in rural areas with an organization called “S Off Your Chest.”
“[It’s] basically taking that mask off and allowing yourself to be emotional,” Lee said. “Allowing to express how you really feel and not be stubborn and be like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine. I’m fine,’ but you’re chronically depressed at home. It’s more of allowing yourself to be free and telling others how you truly feel and not get hidden behind the negative stigma of mental health.”
Lee was honored for her efforts of raising mental health awareness by being named one of five Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award recipients last summer in Washington D.C. She was accompanied by teammates Sarah Renner, Kristina Stinson and Eliza Zachary at the ceremony that acknowledged student-athletes who overcame great odds to achieve academic success.
After graduating next spring, Lee said she plans on putting her non-profit organization goals on hold to pursue a graduate degree. She hopes her message can reach as many people as possible around the world.
“To the ones who are watching someone battle any kind of mental illness, one know it’s not your fault and there’s nothing you can do but be there for them and be a support system for them,” Lee said. “Also, know that it is hard but you can get through it. You can make it.”
Rashad Milligan is the sports editor of The Valley Times-News. He’s also a contributor for SB Nation’s Peachtree Hoops. A 2017 graduate of Georgia State University, his hobbies include lots of hip-hop and basketball.