Originally published in VolleyballUSA Summer 2016 issue
The doctor walked into the room, and her very first words to J. Dee Marinko were: “Do you want to live or do you want to die?”
This was a Tuesday in early 2009, not long after Marinko had found out that a mass in his foot was synovial sarcoma, a rare form of soft-tissue cancer. The doctor explained that there were two courses of treatment. One involved “cleaning out” his foot with a surgery that would leave him with only a fraction of the bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles in his lower leg. If he chose that path, the doctor said, he would likely be walking with a cane and chances were good that the cancer would return and eventually claim his life. She favored a second option: amputation of his right leg below the knee. In her opinion, it would give him his best chance at a full recovery and a full life.
Looking back, Marinko, a native of Newcastle, Oklahoma, who is now one of the top players on the U.S. Men’s Sitting Volleyball Team that will compete at the Paralympic Games in Rio in September, appreciates the doctor’s candor. But her message staggered him at the time.
“I went home, and I was in a daze,” he says. “There was so much to take in. I was just in shock.”
He thought about it the rest of the afternoon, then all day the following day, and more the day after. And then one moment he looked over and saw his six-month old boy, Kash, who was crawling around on the floor. All of a sudden, the toughest decision of his life became the easiest.
“Right then, I said I gotta do it, gotta cut it off; I’ve gotta be there for him,” says Marinko, who now has a second son, Liam, who turns five in July. “I could have been selfish and said, ‘No, I’m keeping my foot’ And if I hadn’t put my son first, there’s a good chance I could be dead right now. Kash is seven now, and I tell him, ‘I want you to know, you’re the reason I’m here.’ And he says, ‘Awww, Daddy.’ And I say, ‘I’ll explain it to you more when you’re older, but I just want you to know.’”
Through the life-changing weeks that followed the diagnosis and the amputation, Marinko was lucky to have family members who understood from first-hand experience what he was going through. His mom, Teresa McShane, had beaten breast cancer and his dad, Joe Marinko, is also an amputee from a leg injury he suffered in a motorcycle accident way back when J. Dee was a year old.
Even with the family support, those initial months after the operation were rough. Marinko is an athlete at heart, a guy who competed in a bunch of sports as a kid, excelled as a football wide receiver in high school and even played some college football before a shoulder injury ended his career. When he lost his lower leg, it felt like he’d also lost a big chunk of his identity.
“There were a lot of times when I would be lying in bed thinking, ‘Why me? What did I do to deserve this?’ But I just got to the point where I thought, I don’t want to be this way anymore. I’ve been an athlete my whole life. I want to be active. I can’t just sit around and feel sorry for myself. I want to show my boys that no matter what happens, you can overcome what’s thrown at you.”
At the time, Marinko was living in Edmond, Oklahoma, home of both the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Sitting Volleyball Teams that train at University of Central Oklahoma. After a few conversations with Elliot Blake, USA Volleyball’s coordinator of the sitting teams, Marinko checked out the game, thought it looked pretty cool, then tried it. Anyone who saw his first few swings could tell immediately that this was a guy who could bring the heat.
“You talk about a guy wanting to hit the crap out of the ball,” Blake says. “If you’re at the net on a sitting court, there are only five meters to the end line. On our [training] court there’s a blue divider that separates the [sitting volleyball court] from a basketball court. That divider is probably another 15 feet behind the end line. When J. Dee started, he would hit the ball probably 10 feet up the divider. We didn’t want him to lose that power, so we just had to teach him how to improve his swing technique and develop a wrist snap. Now, rather than a ball that travels flat at 50 miles an hour, he has a downward shot that lands inside the court.”
Power is still his trademark – he says it feels pretty good to wind up and crank one off somebody’s face – but he has become a very good all-around player, and Blake attributes that largely to Marinko’s work ethic.
That was always the plan. When Marinko was thinking about competing for a spot on the sitting team, he told his family that he didn’t want to just dabble in it. For him, going for it meant trying to “be the best in the world.”
“That was every day for about six years,” he says.
“You could be the best standing player in the world, but if you don’t know how to sit down and move, your skills are useless – period,” Marinko says. “If you can’t be efficient with your movement, you’re going to get hit in the face with a ball, and it’s not going to feel good. Trust me. Been there, done that.”
Pain, apparently, walks hand in hand with the sitting game, at least for rookies. Back in 2010, after the first day of his initial three-day training camp with the team, he was so sore he went home and lay on the floor for a couple of hours without moving. Now that he’s a veteran, it’s a whole lot better – but still plenty demanding.
“It does wear your butt out,” he says. “I played football my whole life, and sitting volleyball might be the most physically demanding sport I’ve ever played because you’re always moving.”
Of course, life is always moving, too. In the past year, he has been going through a divorce, and the stress has been high. To deal with it, he stepped up his workout routine and also improved his nutrition. That sliced 30 pounds off his 6-4 frame, which gave him a decidedly baggy fashion look but also pushed his game to a new level.
“He drowns in his clothes now, but he’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen him in,” U.S. Men’s Sitting Team Head Coach Greg Walker says. “He’s moving better, playing with a more aggressive style and playing with more confidence. It’s been a cool journey to see him take that next step and become one of the best players in the world. And it’s definitely contagious. The guys on the team see it and they’re following his example.”
No one has enjoyed the volleyball journey more than Marinko, who remains cancer free to this day. (According to Marinko at his last checkup, the oncologist said, “You’re healthier than a horse. Get out of here!”) He says he never would have imagined himself as one of 12 people putting on a uniform with a United States flag on it. Now 35, he goes so far as to say that losing his leg to cancer was a “blessing.”