CHAMPAIGN — Liz McMahon can’t recall a time when she wasn’t taller — often significantly taller — than her classmates.
“Even going back to preschool, I was always the tallest,” she said.
Nothing’s changed in that regard for the Illinois junior volleyball standout, who is officially listed on her team’s roster as 6-foot-6 but just may be even taller.
The outside/right-side hitter hinted at as much last week at Huff Hall during Media Day while discussing her distinctive stature.
“It’s part of my identity,” McMahon said. “Everyone knows you as a 6-6, 6-7, whatever-I-am girl.”
Whatever her true height, the tallest player in Illini volleyball history not only has come to accept her stand-out-from-the crowd verticality, but to give it a big hug.
“It’s definitely a huge part of my life,” McMahon said. “You just embrace something that’s totally a part of you.”
Not surprisingly, McMahon wasn’t always so comfortable with her extraordinary height and the attention it invariably attracted. Her freshman and sophomore years of high school — when she stood 6-3 and 6-5, respectively — were particularly difficult, she says.
“Being in high school, all you wanted to do was fit in (and) I had no choice but to stand out,” said McMahon, who attended Lakota West High School in suburban Cincinnati. “There were events in crowds and I felt really tall and it kind of bothered me. I could see the stares. The stares are what got (to) me.”
By then, McMahon had come to expect the inevitable questions and remarks about her height.
“I remember the first day of I think (it was) eighth grade, I counted and I got like 34 people that made comments,” she said.
Some of those remarks could be remarkably insensitive and even cruel. She’s heard such comments as “You’re so huge” and “That stinks that you’re huge.”
Said McMahon: “I wouldn’t say that I’ve been bullied ... but (people were) always pointing out that I am different, I am tall.”
Illini teammate Anna Dorn can empathize because she’s experienced some of the same inappropriate reactions to her height.
“Everywhere we go, there’s always somebody who has the boldness to come up to you and be like, ‘How tall are you?’ ” the 6-3 middle blocker said. “They might not think that it’s a little bit offensive, but it just gets really annoying, especially when they just stare at you.”
For McMahon, the transformation from self-conscious to self-confident began during her junior year of high school. By then, she was 6-6, and volleyball, she says, played no small role in her unqualified acceptance of her height. The fact that a Who’s Who of college programs were jockeying for her commitment — and USA Volleyball was opening its training doors — can do plenty for a girl’s self-esteem.
“That’s when I really realized, hey, being this tall is awesome,” McMahon said. “It’s gotten me to this point in my life.
“It took a while. It’s just self-esteem and building that up. And then realizing all the awesome gifts I’ve gotten from it because of volleyball.”
Dig deep enough into her family history, and McMahon’s height shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise.
Her father, Kevin, is 6-3 — the tallest of seven siblings. Her mother, Janine, is 5-8. Both of them tall, certainly, but nothing particularly extraordinary.
But one of Kevin’s grandfathers stood 6-6. That grandfather’s son — Kevin’s uncle — also was about the same height. And that uncle had a son who grew to 6-8.
“So Liz was lucky enough to get the vertical gene,” Kevin said.
Family ties also can explain how McMahon successfully navigated a sometimes tear-filled journey through all the growth spurts to her current sense of pride in her height. The youngest — and tallest by 4 inches — of Kevin and Janine’s three children could always count on the support and guidance of her parents. In fact, McMahon can recall how in public, the protective mother bear side of Janine would emerge, ready to confront anyone making an unthinking remark about her daughter’s height.
“She’d see people make comments and she’d always want to stand up for me,” McMahon said. “She will respond.
“But I’ve learned to block it out. I’ll be walking with friends or family, and they’ll say ‘Did you hear that person?’ No, I didn’t actually. I’m just used to it.”
This self-assured and self-accepting attitude has been apparent to her college coach since McMahon arrived at the UI.
“She’s a really confident kid,” Kevin Hambly said. “She carries herself well. She stands very tall.
“I think she’s comfortable in her own skin so it hasn’t really been a topic that we’ve had to address.”
In fact, McMahon isn’t shy about pointing out to her not-exactly-short coach — Hambly says he’s 6-6 — that she’s the taller of the two.
“She’s like, ‘I can see the top of your head,’ and gives me a hard time, which I’m like ‘Cool,’ ” the Illini coach said. “I’ll (welcome) more players that can see the top of my head.”
Such teasing is one more example of McMahon’s full embrace of her vertical distinctiveness.
Sure, there are some drawbacks, like the challenge of finding jeans or shoes that fit. Or dealing with the cramped confines of an airplane seat hardly designed for a 6-foot-6 person’s legs.
But McMahon has faced — and faced down — many tougher challenges that come with her height. And it’s clear this 20-year-old wouldn’t want to stand in anyone else’s shoes.
“I’m comfortable now,” McMahon said. “In high school it was hard, but now I love it and I wouldn’t want anything else.”