UF standout Wiggs giving back to community


Florida's Tangerine Wiggs is interviewed during media day on Aug. 16.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 11:51 p.m.

When Tangerine Wiggs leaps into the air for a kill, the audience holds its breath.

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Florida's Tangerine Wiggs is interviewed during media day on Aug. 16.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer

Last season, the 6-foot-4 Florida volleyball star played every set, ranked seventh in the SEC in hitting percentage (.319) and made second-team All-SEC.

And this year, the 22-year-old broke a Florida record when she racked up 13 kills and a .929 hitting percentage against Mississippi State in late October.

Her spikes echo like gunfire. She finds unprotected grids on the court the way sluggers find the sweet spot on a fastball. And her errors are blue moons.

The senior's dynamic presence has had a powerful impact on Gainesville volleyball since her transfer from Washington State at the end of the 2009 season.

But when she graduates Dec. 14-15, she may be remembered for something much more powerful: her involvement with the community.

Over the summer, Wiggs took EEX3312, Exceptional People, a UF course about extraordinary disabled people and their struggles. That's where she met Lenora McGowan, a blind woman who has been working at The Alligator for the last 32 years.

She shuffled into that summer classroom and spoke softly about her life, about the day-to-day challenges she's faced.

Wiggs was taken aback. Listening to McGowan talk was eye-opening. Anything the young student once found menial and trivial became something she had taken for granted. Life felt precious.

She was touched by the woman's resilience, her drive to live in spite of her total blindness. Something powerful grabbed her heart that day, she said.

By the end of class, she had resolved to introduce herself, to let the woman know that she had a new friend in Tangerine Wiggs.

It didn't matter if it was a doctor's appointment or running errands. Wiggs told McGowan she wanted to help however she could. And she didn't just want to be a helper — she wanted to be a friend.

“We hit it off,” Wiggs said. “Ever since then, she's been a part of my life. She's an amazing person, and she's really helped me gain perspective.”

They started small. At first, Wiggs drove McGowan to RadioShack, where the older woman purchased an iPad. Another time they went for lunch at Cracker Barrel. They swapped stories, laughed, chit-chatted about school and McGowan's job.

Wiggs even started inviting McGowan to games and introducing her to teammates and coaches after home matches.

It became a ritual. After games, McGowan would stagger across the court with the help of an aide, locate Wiggs and give her a hug.

“There you are!” Wiggs always says. She knows who it is before she even turns around. They share a special friendship, the kind that makes domination on the volleyball court feel small.

“Whenever I hang out with Lenora, it's a learning experience for me,” Wiggs said. “It's never a time to feel sad for Lenora because she doesn't feel sad for herself.

“She's so good and sincere and honest. And she goes along with everything. It's a true rarity to find someone like that.”

■ ■ ■

Before she is Tangerine, she is “Cakes.” Her nickname.

The youngest of eight children, she's grown into the biggest child. Fred Wiggs, 65, sees something special in his daughter.

She's been playing volleyball since fifth grade, but she's been using her heart for much longer, he says.

“She has an appreciation for people,” Fred said. “There are certain things you can't fake, and that's one of them.”

She isn't putting on a show, he says. She's not a prima donna.

In Fred's mind, there is only a cup, and there is only one choice: to see the world as half full or half empty. What you choose speaks volumes about you.

“I think she sees it half full,” he said. “It's her choice to do that. And that choice, on her part, is amazing.”

■ ■ ■

She could be watching “Suits,” or “Gossip Girl.” They're her favorite shows. They're perfect for vegging out. Instead, she's up at 7 a.m. She has one of two weekly lifts to complete by 8, a shower to fit in and an internship at the Federal District Court at 8:30.

She gets to nap from 1:30 p.m. to 3. Then it's practice time, which means intense hours spent on perfecting technique and watching film.

This kind of scheduling isn't easy. But it serves a purpose to Wiggs. Everything does.

That's why she spends time on other people. They have more to offer than she could offer herself, especially McGowan.

“I think she gives Cakes more than Cakes gives her,” Fred said. “That's so special. We're so happy that she has a friend like that.”

McGowan's happy to call her a friend, too.

“The few moments I had I would not be thinking about making room for somebody else,” she said. “Having the energy to make time for somebody else is incredible. You don't meet very many people like her.

“She opened up avenues to me that I would have never otherwise had the chance to go down.”

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