‘The Perfect Embodiment’ of UVA’s Program: How Anna Williamson Personifies Hope

March 15, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

When you’re the subject of a segment during an Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament game broadcast on ESPN, you’re bound to get flooded with texts from friends and family.

“I checked my phone a little after halftime and I already had, like, 62,” Anna Williamson said.

But when that national spotlight is shined on you to tell your inspiring story, you’re open to reaction from a much broader audience.

Williamson, a fourth-year student manager for the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, was born with spina bifida. She’s paralyzed from the knees down and has undergone upward of a dozen surgeries, and wears a heavy brace on her right leg to help her walk. She struggles with inclines and often wakes up the mornings after games sore from the toll of having to be on her feet for so long.

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Anna Williamson  in a Virginia Cavaliers tee shirt looking up
Williamson has spent four seasons in her role as student manager for the UVA team. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

So, when some of that information was shared by ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe last Friday during the first half of UVA’s win over Clemson University in the ACC Tournament semifinals, Williamson became a symbol of hope for parents of children with spina bifida, a birth defect in which a developing baby’s spinal cord fails to form properly.

“I’ve received DMs on Twitter and Instagram from moms with young kids who have what I have,” Williamson said. “It’s just awesome to be able to encourage them and give them a little bit of a tangible thing to look at and go, ‘OK, my kid’s going to be fine.’”

Williamson’s turned out more than fine. According to UVA senior forward Jayden Gardner, she’s “the perfect embodiment” of coach Tony Bennett’s program.

Bennett’s fourth-seeded Wahoos on Thursday will begin play in their ninth NCAA Tournament in 12 seasons when they face No. 13 seed Furman University in a 12:40 p.m. first-round game in Orlando, Florida. The program’s winning culture has long been built on Bennett’s five pillars of humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness – all traits Williamson has embraced since arriving on Grounds in summer 2019.

“She’s someone who’s selfless,” Gardner said. “She has a big heart and she cares for everybody. She has a willingness to sacrifice her time to just be with us and serve us. She’s on top of everything.”

Williamson is one of two females among the 10 student managers for the men’s basketball team. The philosophy major estimates she works eight hours on game days and another three to four hours each practice day. Her responsibilities include rebounding for players before and after practice, preparing Gatorade coolers, operating the game and shot clocks during practice and arranging pre- and postgame meals for the team.

Anna Williamson hugging Taine Murray
Following the win over Louisville, Williamson hugged every member of the Wahoos, including sophomore guard Taine Murray. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

“I have way too many phone numbers of restaurant managers around town,” she said with a laugh. “To be honest, I love that job because it’s a fun way to serve them on an individual level that doesn’t require exertion. So, I do love doing the food because I get to know them, even the coaching staff, what they like and what they hate, without having to pull a muscle.”

Her four years of dedication were rewarded March 4 after the Wahoos defeated the University of Louisville to claim a share of the ACC regular season title. To commemorate the achievement, UVA players, coaches and staffers took turns climbing a ladder and snipping off pieces of the net from one of the rims at John Paul Jones Arena.

Williamson, the daughter of UVA alumni, was ecstatic to just be in that moment. This was her final home game as a manager and here she was watching her favorite team celebrate a championship. She hugged each player and coach.

“I was just trying to smile, and not cry,” she said, “because I was so happy for them.”

But then all of “them” became overjoyed for her. Williamson, prompted by both UVA operations director Ronnie Wideman and assistant coach Jason Williford, was the last to climb the ladder. She had the honor of cutting the net’s final strands. She quicky wore the net as a necklace as the Cavaliers cheered her on at midcourt.

“It was the best,” Bennett said of the scene. “I joked that I didn’t think she ever took that net off. I think she might have slept with that thing on.”

Williamson confirmed she did finally remove the net around 12:45 a.m. the next morning. It now sits in her bedroom, on the corner of a large picture frame that was given to her by the team before the Louisville game as part of the Senior Day ceremony. She intends to wear the net again in May when she walks the Lawn for graduation.

When that day arrives, it’ll be another chapter in Williamson’s incredible UVA story.

“I can’t describe how great it’s been,” she said. “When I got here, I would have been so content just cheering in the student section for my favorite team. But to be able to do all this – oh my goodness, it’s been a pleasure.”

The UVA Men's Basketball team celebrating as Anna Williamson cuts down the net
UVA players can’t hide their excitement for Williamson after she cut the net down on Senior Day. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Among her favorite parts of this experience has been the relationship she’s developed with Bennett. She’s admired how genuine the coach has been to her, from being intentional about learning her name on day one to now drumming up support for “Revival,” the coffee shop Williamson plans to open in August in the Ivy Square Shopping Center in Charlottesville.

Williamson and Bennett share a bond in their Christian faith that transcends their time together in a basketball setting.

“It’s been a wonderful blessing,” Williamson said. “He just really cares. He cares about people more than sports, ultimately. So to just get a text from him, like a psalm recommendation from his devotional – ‘Oh, I thought of you’ – that says a lot about his character.

Anna Williamson wearing the net in her hair
Williamson turned the championship net into a necklace. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

“Our relationship is going to last a long, long time after graduation.”

Like when Bennett shows up as one of Revival’s first customers – and asks for his preferred style of coffee.

“I’ve got to make his Americano perfect,” she said. “I’ll have it ready.”

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A student manager now, but a soon-to-be UVA graduate and coffee shop owner, Williamson’s opportunities to inspire won’t stop any time soon.

And for that, she’s most grateful.

“My favorite part of all this is that I can talk to parents and let them know that it’s not the end of the world if their child has spina bifida,” she said. “A child’s value doesn’t change at all because of his or her disability. It can be a positive thing.”

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Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications