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Staff photo / GPS volleyball player Chapel Cunningham hits the ball over the net during a home match against East Hamilton on Sept. 25, 2019.

When Girls Preparatory School athletic director Jay Watts went looking for a new volleyball coach for the Bruisers, he didn't have to search far. Bailey Winel was already on the private school's payroll working with the track and field team's shot and discus athletes.

But despite her expertise in track and field — she was an Illinois state champ in the shot and discus, setting a state record in the latter in 2008 — the fact that Winel was already on campus and had previously coached high school volleyball in Oklahoma was not why he chose her.

"Bailey has coached the Navy Wounded Warrior Sitting Volleyball program to three gold medals in the last three years before this one," Watts said. "She's been dealing with athletes with a wide range of ability levels and other issues, and she's had great success with them. That kind of patience and understanding is hard to come by for most coaches."

Winel's Wounded Warrior work started in 2016 while coaching volleyball at Newcastle High School in Oklahoma. She has since overseen gold medal-winning performances at the Warrior Games in 2017, 2018 and 2019. This year's team was also set to compete in the international Invictus Games in The Hague in the Netherlands, before they were postponed until May 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's been the most rewarding job I've ever had," said the 30-year-old Winel of her part-time work with the Navy Wounded Warrior team. "Coaching GPS is completely different than coaching military men twice my age who've lost their legs or arms."

Nor is it only the loss of limbs her athletes have suffered.

"A lot of them have TBI (traumatic brain injury)," she said. "Sometimes they can barely remember their names."

One of those athletes was Daniel Lee, whose daughter played club volleyball in the Oklahoma City area.

"When I first worked with him, be couldn't remember his name or what he'd been coached on from one day to the next," she said. "Every day we had to start over from scratch. But two years later, it was incredible the progress he'd made. We won two gold medals with Daniel as my setter. Then he left the program, saying, 'It's somebody else's turn.' It's amazing how much that program has helped veterans get their lives back."

Since first arriving at GPS almost four years ago as a middle school lacrosse coach, it's amazing how much life has changed for Winel and her husband, Ethan, who works for Coyote Logistics.

Daughter Olive Marie is now 10 months old. Winel's about to begin coaching her third sport in four years at GPS while adjusting to life during the coronavirus pandemic. And as somewhat befitting someone who grew up in Chicago, the Southern summers still zap her energy.

"It's just too hot here," she said with a laugh over the phone on Tuesday. "It's so humid. I'm just thankful we're working out in an air-conditioned gym."

That's not to say she isn't fond of some things about the South.

"I spent my first two years of college at Georgia Tech (before eventually earning bachelor's and master's degrees at Oklahoma)," Winel said. "You've heard about the Freshman 15 (weight gain). I had the Freshman 50. I fell in love with fried chicken and cornbread."

Did anything from the Varsity tickle her tastebuds?

"The chili corndogs," she said

As for coaching during the coronavirus, Winel says she's adapting.

"It's just so much harder to connect," she said. "GPS has done an amazing job with protocols to keep girls safe. But it's so hard to build relationships this way. You want to have time to bond and talk about life. But right now it's two hours of volleyball and they go home to quarantine."

Yet GPS senior Chapel Cunningham — who sat in on the school's Zoom interview sessions with the coaching candidates — is already impressed with Winel's coaching.

"She's going to push us hard," Cunningham said. "She's super intentional about relationships. She wants to build a volleyball family."

Also like Winel and everyone else involved in high school athletics, Cunningham is still adjusting to her new COVID-19 world.

"After every drill we have, we spray the balls down (with disinfectant)," she said. "They take our temperatures when we first get to school. We wear masks part of the time. We practice social distancing when we can. We use hand sanitizer. Instead of high-fives, we're doing foot-fives."

Before heading off to coach her first real practice on Tuesday after Monday tryouts, Winel was asked how working with the Navy Wounded Warriors volleyball team changed her coaching philosophy.

"I think I have more empathy for what people are going through," she said. "I used to be hesitant about asking questions about someone's personal life. I would think, 'They don't need me to be in their business.' But now I think that's part of coaching. They need to know I'm there for them if they need me."

If that philosophy isn't worthy of a foot-five, nothing is.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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