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Stage IV cancer, a torn ACL not enough to stop Mahalia White from achieving greatness on and off the court

For many student-athletes new to a college campus, meaningful playing time is a distant dream. But, this wasn’t the case for Mahalia White who was named Big West Freshman of the Year after a phenomenal 2017 season on the University of California, Davis volleyball team.

While White was riding high after a phenomenal debut, trouble was on the horizon. Perhaps the most devastating word in the English language, cancer, reared its ugly head when White was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma just a day after her 19th birthday.

“It’s hard because you want to be your best self immediately, but that’s something where I really had to practice patience and gratitude,” White said. “Having a strong support system who gave me positivity when I didn’t have that myself really kept my head above water.”

Mahalia White brought national attention to the University of North Florida with her inspirational story. (UNF Athletics)

Once her cancer went into remission, White immediately shifted her focus to getting back on the court. She triumphantly returned to volleyball, posting 285 kills in the 2019 season. Her next go was halted by the outbreak of COVID-19, which shut down the 2020 Big West season.

This was another interruption in White’s pursuit of her dreams, but the storm was far from over. In a cruel twist, she landed awkwardly during a practice and tore her ACL, forcing her to miss the 2021 season.

While she places high value on what’s on the court, it was the University of North Florida’s communication management graduate program that led to her becoming an Osprey. Well, that and the family-oriented culture that head coach Kristen Wright has built with the university’s volleyball team. 

“I realized how important the culture is and how important leadership is at UNF,” White said. “Learning about a coach that loves you not just as a player, but as a person and really wants to help you develop in different areas outside of that made me realize I wanted to come here.”

It didn’t take long for White to feel at home with her Osprey teammates. (Justin Nedrow)

Being a student-athlete at the graduate level means having plenty of experience under your belt, but this almost gets thrown out the metaphorical window when transferring into a completely new program.

White found herself on an Ospreys squad that entered the 2022 season with six freshmen on the roster. She may have been in the same boat as a newcomer, but she was grateful for the opportunity to serve as a leader despite being a new face at UNF.

A team-high of 393 kills in 2022 cemented White as a legend on the court at UNF Arena, but it was an off-the-court award that might just be the highlight of her collegiate career. White was announced as the winner of the 2023 Honda Inspiration Award in June, with White referring to the honor as “a culmination of all the things I’ve been through in my life.” 

With this came the spotlight. White was featured on CBS Sports Network’s Defying the Odds and honored at the 2023 Honda Inspiration Award ceremony, where she addressed those in attendance. 

Despite the initial nerves, White ultimately enjoyed her time in front of the camera. (UNF Athletics)

Despite never being the one to struggle with stage fright, White admitted how nervous she was before taking the stage.

“That day, I literally felt like I was going to throw up,” White said. “Once I started talking, it came very naturally.”

She ultimately persevered, delivering her inspiring story to a star-studded audience at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. While it would have been a nice ride off into the sunset, White still has one more year left of eligibility at the collegiate level.

Going into her final season, an ASUN championship is at the top of White’s to-do list. However, she is more concerned about leaving behind a legacy of leadership and love for her sisters in the locker room.

“Accolades, they come and go,” White said. “But I want to be remembered as a teammate that pushes others to be their best.”


For more information or news tips, or if you see an error in this story or have any compliments or concerns, contact [email protected].

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About the Contributors
Riley Platt
Riley Platt, Sports Editor
Riley Platt is a senior University of North Florida multimedia journalism student. A lifelong Jacksonville native, Riley has always had a burning passion for sports, specifically at the collegiate level. He grew up coming to UNF basketball games as early as his middle school days and now gets to cover the Ospreys, living out his childhood dreams. Riley's done a bit of everything with Spinnaker, whether it be writing over 200 articles, doing play-by-play commentary for UNF basketball and even serving as a sports anchor for Spinnaker TV’s weekly Nest News. Riley transitioned from Spinnaker to an internship at the end of the summer 2023 semester and is expected to graduate at the end of 2023. 
Justin Nedrow
Justin Nedrow, Photographer
Justin Nedrow is a Jacksonville-based photographer who started volunteering for Spinnaker in 2020 and recently graduated in spring 2023 with a degree in sports management from the University of North Florida. Taking hundreds, if not thousands, of photos, Justin has helped Spinnaker reporters cover everything from sports games, protests, ordinary campus life and more. Photography is a passion project for Justin, one he started to meet new people and express himself without words.

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