BERKELEY, Calif. — A California basketball player pointed to acknowledge Savannah Rennie in the Haas Pavilion hallway and smiled.
“Comeback Kid!” Sam Singer proclaimed before disappearing into the weight room.
That she is. A 19-year-old woman, very much still a kid indeed, back in college with a new liver to keep her alive for the long haul.
Rennie returned to Cal early last month following five months in Indiana, where she received a liver transplant that has allowed her slowly, and somewhat impatiently, to get back on the volleyball court for the Golden Bears. And she might even play in a match again by season’s end, though nobody is rushing that process aside from Rennie herself.
From fellow student-athletes, the supportive community in Berkeley, to USA Volleyball — decorated player-turned-U.S. coach Karch Kiraly sent a note of well wishes during the spring — and fans far beyond the Bay Area, Rennie has had quite a cheering section through her frightening ordeal. They are rooting her on once more as she gets back to a full load of courses and volleyball practice this fall. Women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb is yet another person who inquired about Rennie’s health and volleyball status.
Rennie was diagnosed with congenital hepatic fibrosis with portal hypertension last September. The disease typically affects newborns or seniors, not healthy, thriving teens. Her doctor back home in San Diego has since diagnosed several other patients with the condition.
One day last week, Rennie was the last one working out, finishing her weights routine with some calf raises as several teammates hustled off to their afternoon classes.
With all that watching from the sideline last season, Rennie has become like a second set of coaching eyes on the court for coach Rich Feller. She knows her teammates’ tendencies and speaks up when they ask for feedback — and even when they don’t, Rennie is vocal.
“Hey, short serve, this side!” she hollers.
“Serve coming this way!”
“Everyone’s really inspired by her work ethic because we know how hard it was to come back. But she didn’t falter,” said senior Maddy Kerr, from the same San Diego high school. “It wasn’t ever a question for us that she was going to come back. We knew she’d be back. It’s a testament to the way she is as a person and was before this all happened.”
On Friday night, Rennie will be in warmups as the Bears welcome back former Cal player and U.S. Olympic bronze medalist setter Carli Lloyd, honoring her before a match against West Virginia. Soon, Rennie will be ready to pull on that No. 16 game uniform.
She realizes she can’t rush it. She has been through so much, emotionally and physically. It has been just more than three months since the surgery.
There’s a large scar across her midsection that she notes resembles the Mercedes Benz logo. It will serve as a constant reminder of what she endured, of her new life now. And, yes, she very much plans to rock a bikini and be prepared for stares and questions along the way.
“I’m 19,” she said matter-of-factly.
On the court, Rennie is primarily working from the back row, though she has been able to sneak a couple of swings without anybody taking much notice. She has gained back muscle and is hitting the ball harder than she did before.
Feller is making sure Rennie takes it slow. If she plays this season, it will be a bonus.
“We have to grab her and go, ‘No, you can’t, no you can’t,'” Feller said. “Until the doctors really say she can jump and hit in anger, you’re not doing that.”
Rennie kept pushing to get back on the court, just to practice and feel like an athlete again.
“I was pretty annoying,” she said. “I’d ask every day. I’d ask every drill.”
Her surgery was May 17, and best friend and teammate Maddie Haynes surprised her in Indiana. Haynes arrived, by chance and fortunate luck, a day before Rennie got the call saying it was time.
“It’s an emotional moment seeing her back out there, just from the last two months being with her,” Haynes said. “Seeing that happen and all that goes on and now her back on the court, she’s doing more than what someone who would have had the surgery should be doing. It’s just incredible to see her. She’s acting like she never had the surgery.”
Someday, Rennie might be ready to reach out to her donor family. For now, all she knows about her liver’s backstory is it came from a woman in her 20s.
She is thankful to no longer be experiencing extreme pain or the excruciating headaches, high fevers and nausea.
Rennie wears a necklace every day with her initials, “SLR,” and the date of her operation in Roman numerals. When “the timing is right,” she will get a tattoo near her scar in Roman numerals with the date and GPS coordinates of the Indiana hospital.
“Where and when I got my life back,” she explains. “A year out maybe. I’ll let my whole abdomen chill out for a second. That’s my plan.”
Just one of many plans Rennie can now make about what she hopes is a healthy, promising future. With the sport and people she loves.