When I applied to Stanford, I was required to write a letter to my future roommate. It was easy.
“Here are the answers to the first questions you're going to ask me,” I wrote. “I’m 6-8. I play volleyball. And I’m from Texas.”
When I look inward, I see that I am many things: a grateful daughter and sister to my family, a citizen of the world, an All-America opposite hitter on a national championship team, and a future epidemiologist who hopes to improve global public health.
What I don’t necessarily see is what everyone seems to immediately notice – that I’m very tall.
I've come to realize that while other people look at me as the tall girl, I've never thought that my height was my identity.
When I was younger, I played in a club volleyball tournament in a large convention hall filled with courts. There were people everywhere, walking back and forth between matches going on at the same time. I was on the sideline about to go on the court during competition, when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Oh my God,” the person said in awe. “How tall are you?”
This happens fairly often. It’s annoying when you’re walking down the street going about your business and someone walks up to you and says, “you’re tall.” Great, I’ve never heard that one before. In fact, the quips are pretty much the same things I hear over and over again. People really aren’t that creative.
What makes me laugh is this kind of conversation:
“You’re so tall.”
“You must get that all the time.”
“Is it annoying?”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry, it’s fine.”
I always was the tallest in my class. Both my parents are 6-4 and my brother is 6-6. He loves the fact that I’m his taller younger sister. I guess I ate a really balanced diet.
My mom, Lisa Gertsch, understood the insecurities. Being tall as well, she always told me how awesome it was to be tall. She made sure I knew how cool or unique it was, and how I could use it to my advantage. It took me a while to really see the truth in that, but her encouragement and support was crucial in helping me to feel comfortable in my own body. I never remember feeling embarrassed or withdrawn because of it.
I admit I used to need that encouragement sometimes. I’d feel self-conscious if I was at a concert or movie and blocked someone’s view. But, eventually, I stopped caring. I’m thankful for never having to apologize for the person I am.
When I was in eighth grade, I reached 6 feet. I was so excited to tell everyone. Some people don’t have an outlet and may see being tall as a curse. I never felt that way. In high school, I grew four inches one year and three the next. I don’t know if that counts as a growth spurt if you’re already so much taller than everyone else, but I thought it was great.
The best thing about being tall is you can play a lot of sports, and that was my path of acceptance when we moved to a new town or country, which happened a lot. I could make new friends by sharing our common interests, like being on a team.
I lived the majority of my life overseas. My dad, Michael Lutz, was in the oil business and we followed the oil. I was born in Dallas and we moved to Manhattan Beach and then to Anchorage, Alaska, for four years. Then London for two years, Azerbaijan for four years, and back to Houston where my brother and I settled into high school and played sports. My brother, Karsten Lutz, was on Stanford’s crew team, and both our parents went to Stanford.
Probably the most unusual place we lived was Azerbaijan, a small former Soviet republic next to the Caspian Sea. Every place we lived was strange to some extent, but Azerbaijan was unique. I remember we couldn’t go into town the first week of November because of the elections, and there probably were going to be riots. When you’re a kid, you don’t really think much of it, but as you get older you realize, wow, we lived under a dictator.
I remember bird flu was a huge problem. There were dead birds on the side of the street that had to be scooped away. It was super dangerous. I remember my mom had to stock up on Tamiflu, a flu prevention medicine. The experience made an impression and helped influence my career choice.
When you move so much, you get really good at making friends. You just have to. International schools tend to be small and students are so excited about every new kid that comes in. That’s why being tall wasn’t really an issue. It was only after moving back to the U.S. that I realized I had to put myself out there, because most people already had their friend groups.
I’ve understood how to deal with the stares and the sly attempts at taking my photo without me noticing. It can definitely make you feel like you’re some sort of spectacle. You develop a sixth sense about it a little bit, sensing the attention you’re receiving on the periphery.
But I’ve never had that happen on campus. And on the court, I’m just one of the girls – very tall girls.
Tonight marks my last home regular-season match for Stanford. I’m the only senior on a team that has clinched the Pac-12 title, never been ranked lower than No. 4 nationally this season, and is seeking back-to-back NCAA championships.
I came here without playing at the highest level in club. We didn’t make the best tournaments and I only played middle – when you’re really tall, you just get shoved in the middle. John Dunning, my Stanford coach my first four seasons, allowed me to redshirt as a freshman and develop without making mistakes that could cost us in matches.
Learning from him was awesome. He’s definitely one of the best coaches I could possibly ever have. Last year, I was switched to the right side before the 2016 season. We had talked about it for a long time and there’s always some trepidation. But I love it now. I don’t want to go back.
It was part of a crazy year -- the most up-and-down season I’ve ever had here – and, somehow, we ended up winning the whole thing. During our Elite Eight match at Wisconsin, we were down two sets to zero. But we just battled as hard as we could and came back to win. It was ridiculous. I think I peaked. That’s probably the best game I’ll ever play in my life. It was so memorable, so crazy. There should be a movie made about it.
To do what we did made us so confident in each other and enhanced our ability to work together as a team. We were so in synch. That match felt like we won the national championship.
Under our new coach, Kevin Hambly, I’ve expanded my game. Kevin’s good at experimenting. He calls it, “adding wrinkles,” by developing something new we can throw at an opponent.
Part of my evolution is that I’m hitting from the back row and playing defense. I’ll never be like our libero, Morgan Hentz. I can’t slide around the floor like that and I never got much experience playing defense when I was younger. I was too tall to be good at it, my coaches thought. Too slow to go to the ground for a dig. That’s a bit of a bummer because I really would like to be better at digging. If I go on to play professionally, I’ll have to figure that out, because in international play there aren’t many subs. You don’t often leave the floor and your weaknesses are magnified.
When people think of someone as tall as me, they picture someone who’s clunky and clumsy and doesn’t move well. I’ve worked hard to discontinue that stereotype, doing a lot of agility drills with our performance coach, Tyler Friedrich.
Coach Dunning used to motivate me by saying that when I wasn’t moving on the court, I was just being a tall person. He wanted me to be more athletic, to make the right moves and bend my knees, and don’t let my height make me lazy.
While my vertical jump is decent, it really does help that I’m 6-8. I’m not one of the best jumpers on the team, but I still touch the highest. Before this season, I touched 10 feet, 10 inches – 10 inches above the height of a basketball rim. My highest is actually 10-10 ½ and I’m really going for that 11 footer. No one in the history of Stanford volleyball has reached that, but my time’s winding down. I’ll leave that for someone else.
By the way, I’ve never tried to dunk a basketball. It’s my little protest because I don’t like it when people assume that I play basketball.
I like it when people can’t pin me down. They may be surprised of my interest in zombies. Let me explain.
I thought I wanted to be a geologist, but I changed my mind after my first intro class here because I realized how much physics was involved. I dropped into the human biology core my sophomore year and really liked it. Then I started taking epidemiology and realized how much I liked infectious diseases.
My interest originated from my love of zombie movies. In my application to co-term, I wrote how I paid attention to “Walking Dead” and zombie movies because I was curious to see how the government mobilized and tried to control the situation in an outbreak. In “Zombieland,” for instance, it’s obvious the Centers for Disease Control failed. Maybe Bill Murray would have survived after all.
Then I realized this happens in real life, not with zombies, but with the Zika virus and Ebola. I became fascinated with public health and the applied side of medicine.
I graduated in June with a B.S. in human biology, and with a concentration of environmental change and the ecology of infectious disease. Now, I’m working toward my masters’ in epidemiology and clinical research.
I want to work in international health, perhaps for the World Health Organization or the CDC to trace outbreaks of diseases and to prepare the world for a changing disease landscape that accompanies global environmental change. For instance, global warming is a growing problem because of the huge burden it’s placing on undeveloped countries. Malaria can spread because of the changing temperatures and the longer rainy seasons. These countries don’t have the infrastructure to fix it themselves.
That’s why I'd really love to work for the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service and be sent all over the world to fight these viruses and improve public health. It sounds risky, but it’s the coolest thing. They send you to an outbreak and you have to figure out what’s going on, how to stop it and how to protect all these people from infection. They have a good track record of not getting infected. They’re very safe and strict about protection gear.
My height gives me opportunities to meet and talk to others that I never would have gotten otherwise. I’ve learned to look at my height as a positive thing. People actually want to come and talk to me. I embrace that. It goes back to the self-assuredness I learned from my mother, who taught me to accept and embrace my height.
I knew even while filling out that application that my future roommate would have some questions. So, in response: Yes, I’m 6-8. Yes, I play volleyball. And, yes, I’m from Texas – and proud of it.
What else do you need to know?