With the October rain falling in torrents at Vanderbilt Stadium and the Georgia Bulldogs chewing up the Commodores down on the field, Vandy fans had every excuse to cut out on another miserable performance by their hapless football team. But if they wanted a glimpse of athletic success, it meant sticking around until halftime. That's when Heidi Gillingham would be crowned homecoming queen.
Gillingham's credentials for the honor were not the conventional ones: She's a 6'10" All-America senior center whose 14.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.2 blocked shots a game led the Commodores' women's basketball team to the Final Four last season. But since that's the closest Vanderbilt has ever come to a national championship in any sport, wasn't it perfectly fitting that this woman be given a crown?
In the homecoming universe of the SEC, in which students often cast their votes for queen on the basis of pictures plastered around campus by sororities, the athletic Gillingham sticks out like a redwood tree in a rose garden. The tallest woman playing college basketball, she is also the tallest woman at Vanderbilt, so everyone on campus already knows who she is. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes nominated her for queen, but it was the student body that elected her—and came to Vanderbilt Stadium in the rain to honor her on Oct. 16.
Regal, serene and fond of wearing elegant clothes sewn by her mother, Janet, Gillingham is in many ways better cast in the role of royal than that of basketball star. In fact, as a psychology major the 22-year-old Gillingham could make a study of her own struggles with basketball, a sport in which exceptionally tall athletes must cope with assumptions of inherent excellence. She might also analyze her own pacifism, perfectionism and harsh self-criticism, all of which she had to deal with simply to be able to like basketball.
She first played the game at the age of 10 with her family in her driveway in Floresville, Texas, about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio. Her 6'6" father, Kent, upon returning home from his job as an aerospace medical researcher at Brooks Air Force Base, would organize his extraordinarily tall family into teams: He and 5'8" Janet would team up with little Gwendolyn; Heidi, her brother, Greg, and older sister, Heather, would take them on in a ragged free-for-all. Kent, who was always pulling his kids' shoulders back and saying, "Take advantage of your height!" knew that playing basketball would be a good way for them to do just that.
Heather would eventually top out at 6 feet and become a New York high-fashion runway model. Greg, 6'6", played defensive end at Rice before graduating in 1992. But Gwendolyn, now a 6'7" junior center at North Carolina, and Heidi stuck with basketball. For Heidi, who had always been a head taller than everyone else in her class—in third grade she was taller than the teacher—the choice was made in part because there weren't many after-school options in south Texas. "It was that or show livestock," she says.
As soon as she made her first real team, in seventh grade, Heidi found that people expected her squad to win simply because that tall girl was on it. "I never liked the game throughout high school," she says. "I felt like people expected me to be this basketball goddess. I felt like I had to be perfect, but I could never measure up."
Perfection mattered a lot to Gillingham. As a teenager she was known to tear up a 4-H sewing project 10 times before being satisfied with it. An A student, she regularly reworked her class papers for days until they were due. Even a phone call to make a hair appointment would require meticulous preparation to ensure all would go perfectly: Before dialing, Heidi wrote out what she planned to say on the phone, followed by all the possible responses from the hairdresser.
But on the basketball court, no matter how much she practiced, there would be the inevitable missed shot or failed block. Such mistakes couldn't be undone, and that frustrated her. Yet while she could be relentlessly competitive with herself, she had little taste for challenging others. "I just don't like to be aggressive," she says. "When I see a ball rolling, it's my nature to let someone else pick it up and wait my turn."
Even so, she played well enough for Poth High that she was fiercely recruited by more than 75 schools. After she accepted Vanderbilt's scholarship, Gillingham found herself playing behind the Commodores' 6'4" All-America center Wendy Scholtens. "I compared myself to her constantly," says Gillingham, who, even as a substitute, played in every game and was the team's leading rebounder seven times during her freshman year. "Wendy seemed to make every single shot and get every rebound, and I couldn't see any improvement in myself," Gillingham says. "It got to the point where I hated the game. I realized I had always played because I was tall and society expected tall people to play basketball. I had a really bad attitude."