RCW: Setting her way through life


Such a dream come true, so thankful I get to play at my dream school ???????? pic.twitter.com/VaydbLegNM

— Annika Carlson (@accvolley8) August 20, 2017


Week one ?????? pic.twitter.com/bvBVqlzC08

— Annika Carlson (@accvolley8) June 9, 2017


A post shared by Annika Carlson (@acarlson13) on Jun 22, 2017 at 4:34pm PDT


I have been waiting for this day for two years, I’m officially a JAYHAWK ?????? pic.twitter.com/Ve8eqrBugf

— Annika Carlson (@accvolley8) November 9, 2016

Most high school athletes who plan on playing at the collegiate level have followed a structured path from the time they were young. However, for Annika Carlson, a freshman setter on the Kansas volleyball team, things were slightly different, in more ways than one.
Carlson grew up close to Lawrence in Olathe, Kansas, and was always a KU fan. Her love for the Jayhawks started when she was young and it hasn’t wavered to this day. When it came time for Carlson to start contemplating college, she knew exactly where she wanted to go.
“I grew up a KU fan, so when they offered me (a scholarship) the first time, I knew I was taking it that day,” Carlson said. “Coach B (Ray Bechard) offered me and I committed right (then and there) on the phone.”
But before her dream of becoming a Jayhawk came true, Carlson didn’t always know she wanted to play volleyball at the collegiate level.
Carlson only began playing the sport while she was in eighth grade before joining the Mid-America Volleyball club team, more commonly known as MAVS, in Kansas City when she was 14-years-old. While she acknowledged that she started playing a bit late, that year is when she said she fell in love with volleyball — which happened to be her second sport. 
“First of all, it was the coaching I had my 14’s year; that’s when I liked (playing volleyball) the best,” Carlson explained. “I used to play soccer and had played soccer my whole life, so I thought I was going to go to college for that. The coaching really changed that for me.”
The 2017 Olathe South graduate was a four-year letterwinner and was named an All-Sunflower League honoree twice throughout her high school career. As for her club team, Carlson is the third product from the MAVS to play for Kansas in recent history, following in the footsteps of KU volleyball alumnae Cassie Wait and Tayler Soucie, both who donned the Crimson and Blue from 2013-16.
While Carlson is the only freshman in a group of four newcomers on the Jayhawk squad this season, that isn’t the only reason her life has been slightly different.
Carlson was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in high school and must adhere to a strict gluten, dairy and soy-free diet, something that could cause a struggle for anyone, let alone a Division I student-athlete.
“It’s just different than everyone else,” she said simply.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, the disease is an autoimmune disorder that occurs in genetically predisposed people where gluten ingestion damages the small intestine. When gluten is ingested, the body will put up an immune response, which attacks the small intestine. This response damages the villi, which are small, fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. If the villi are damaged, nutrients cannot then be absorbed properly into the body.
Gluten refers to proteins that are found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. It helps maintain a food’s shape and is found in a large variety of foods. When someone who is gluten intolerant ingests gluten, it can cause painful body or stomach aches and sometimes even vomiting.
The Director of Sports Nutrition at Kansas, Aaron Carbuhn, says the biggest obstacle to overcome for student-athletes with diet restrictions similar to Carlson’s, is to ensure he or she consumes enough overall energy calories throughout the day to help meet their day-to-day training and recovery demands. 
“A diet with these necessary restraints often requires, at times, a little more planning throughout the day,” Carbuhn said. “If the plan is not properly executed, these athletes could be susceptible to a decrease in energy levels, recovery and overall performance.”
Carbuhn also stressed how important it is that these student-athletes, in particular, are well-educated on appropriate food options whether they be on campus, at home or on the road with their respective Jayhawk team, so they are well equipped to fuel their performance each day.
However, nothing has stopped the 5-foot-11 setter from playing volleyball, not even her diet. Throughout high school in Olathe, Carlson also played for the MAVS and all the while, learned how to properly manage her diet, and has continued to do so since coming to KU.
“I’ve been dealing with it for a while; when I was with my club team, too,” Carlson said. “Since I got (to KU), when we first started team dinners, I think it was hard for other people to know what I could eat. I would eat a lot of plain (foods) and just adapt to what they were eating.”
Over the years, Carlson has found ways to make eating easier for herself, such as finding gluten-free bread or crackers. In addition, her family has been a good support system when it comes to the restrictions in her diet, her mom in particular. Oftentimes, the entire family will eat gluten-free to help the college freshman out a little bit.
Despite not being able to eat a lot of “regular” foods, Carlson has a certain affinity toward fruits and vegetables.
“I’m definitely more of a fruit person. I love strawberries and watermelon,” she said. “I eat a lot of meat, too. That’s a for sure go-to.”
The protein from the meat definitely helps with keeping her energy up, but Carlson also turns to KIND bars since they have no gluten, dairy or soy products and they taste the same as any other protein bar.
As for during the season, Carlson said that the specialized diet she must adhere to because of her Celiac Disease hasn’t been a distraction or problem — and her coach agrees.
Kansas volleyball head coach Ray Bechard said that Carlson is transitioning nicely into the player he thought she’d be, including the restrictions in her diet.
“It hasn’t been a distraction for us at all,” Bechard said. “She’s managed it and not made a big deal of it. (It’s) Just knowing that’s part of who she is and what she needs to do. Our nutritionist has been great in making suggestions, and anywhere we go, we make sure she finds something that can be filling so she can be nutritionally ready to compete.”
Carlson agreed that Carbuhn has been extremely helpful when it comes to meal planning whether it be while on the KU campus or when on road trips with the team, and Carbuhn reciprocated how helpful Carlson has been in being educated about the types of foods she can eat.
“Annika has done a great job transitioning her nutritional needs to Kansas,” Carbuhn said. “We are fortunate our on-campus dining hall menu options through KU Dining, as well as at our on-site Kansas Athletics Fueling Station, provide appropriate food options that meet Annika’s dietary restrictions. These great options, in addition to her already strong knowledge base on how to approach her meals, have made our meetings together go smoothly, resulting in minimal struggles since arriving.”
Carbuhn echoed Carlson’s own “go-to” food options, suggesting meal choices such as: oatmeal and fruit for breakfast; rice bowl and fruit for lunch; and selections like a sweet potato, quinoa and/or beans, as well as starchy vegetables (which could include corn and/or squash) for dinner. He explained that these carbohydrate options should be paired with a non-dairy or soy-derived protein food like eggs, chicken and salmon, for example; in addition to assorted vegetables and healthy fats such as avocado, peanut butter and cashews.
While Carlson meal plans almost every day, she doesn’t focus too much of her energy on that. Her excitement and passion for Kansas volleyball is always channeled onto the court.
Looking at the 2017 season, the team is off to a great start with a 12-2 overall record, having started Big 12 Conference play 1-0 heading into tonight’s contest versus Iowa State in Horejsi Family Athletics Center (6:30 p.m., JTV/ESPN3). While Carlson has yet to see the court for the No. 11-ranked Jayhawks, Bechard is pleased she gets to study under a player such as senior setter Ainise Havili.
“The fact that Annika has had very limited playing time isn’t a reflection of how she’s working or how good she is,” Bechard said. “It’s just the fact that in volleyball, when you have a high-level setter who sets every ball, that’s typically where the majority of playing time goes. She’s going to be a very good player for us.”
Even though Carlson has had limited playing time as a freshman on a highly successful and veteran-laden team, KU volleyball is something near and dear to her heart. She believes that her diet limitations haven’t had a negative effect on her, whether it be on or off the court.
This season, Carlson will continue to study and learn more about the game she loves from Havili, one of the nation’s best setters. Her dream of playing at KU can only be enhanced from the opportunity to acquire the vast knowledge the three-time All-American ahead of her has to provide, all while being able to manage her own dietary needs thanks to the KU Athletics nutrition staff. Balancing her life on and off the court will enable Carlson to make her own unique mark on the Kansas volleyball program.