‘I wasn’t doing too hot.’ Top volleyball coach back with team after heart scare

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

The suddenness shocked people. The reports jarred his circle and then entire communities. No warning signs came ahead of the news that John Yunker, at age 46, could be near death.

Yunker went to a hospital late last December, struggling to breathe. Days later, he was in a coma and having open-heart surgery.

"I wasn't doing too hot," he says now.

Nine months later, he's quite alive, in the early days of coaching another season of Champlin Park High volleyball. He's thriving, too, because those he helped over the years showed up to help him.

Yunker has built a reputation as one of Minnesota's top volleyball coaches, honing his craft at high schools, clubs and colleges. He brought Champlin Park to a position of prominence in the mid-2010s, left for the briefest of college coaching stints at North Dakota, returned to his still-vacant job and cemented his legacy in 2018 by coaching the Rebels to the Class 3A state championship.

"This was where I was supposed to be, I guess," he said. "Things happen for a reason, right?"

Champlin Park, a program with legitimate designs on a state championship, kicked off official practices Monday, with the season's first matches happening statewide Thursday. Yunker's Rebels are ready, relieved and ranked No. 2 in the preseason Class 4A poll.

"It was scary. I didn't know if he'd be back coaching us," said junior outside hitter Carly Gilk, recent Gophers commit. "He's one of the best coaches I've ever had."

Yunker traveled to the American Volleyball Coaches Association convention in Tampa last December, as he had done so often before. Scott Jackson, who coaches three-time Class 4A state champion Wayzata and runs the Minnesota Select volleyball club, spent time with Yunker at that event.

"He was coughing a little bit, but it just seemed like the sniffles," Jackson said. "Nothing serious."

On Dec. 29, Yunker, returning from walking his dog, found himself unusually winded simply going up the stairs to his second-floor apartment. "I'm like, 'This isn't right.' "

Minutes later, on another trip to take his dog outside, the struggle to breathe hit harder. He called 911. He was taken to a hospital near his home in Maple Grove, where he was treated for what was thought to be pneumonia. He remained for about a week before his breathing patterns stabilized enough for him to leave. He stayed at his parents' house nearby, but it wasn't long before severe symptoms caused another emergency.

"When the ambulance showed up, they just said, 'Can you walk?' It was only seven steps up to the landing, but those seven steps did me in," he said. "That was the only time I was really scared. It felt like I had some bag over my head."

Doctors, puzzled as to why his test results weren't matching up with his symptoms, transferred him to North Memorial Health Center in Robbinsdale. After a couple of days of tests and one "really rough night," he was put into an induced coma. He doesn't remember it. "They might've said what they were gonna do, but all I remember is they said, 'John, we have to get you to the bed.'"

His family — mother Peggy, father Jim and sister Jamie — remained by his side. Important not just for the support but because while slept, his health picture became clearer. He had a heart defect. His mitral valve, which moves oxygenated blood through the heart, was worn out. Blood wasn't circulating properly, causing the fatigue and breathlessness.

His parents were informed surgery was necessary. They asked how soon. Immediately was the response. They gave the go-ahead.

"I had the easy part," Yunker said. "My family had to go through hell, consider all the possibilities."

Looking back, he's thankful for the urgency. "I didn't have to sit there for a day or two, staring at the wall, thinking 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to have open-heart surgery.'"

When he came to, in mid-January, he had a new heart valve, a new set of scars on his chest and the ability to breathe again.

Said Yunker: "My dad and I were getting set to go on a fishing trip. Had this happened in the middle of a [frozen] lake in northern Minnesota, I might not be here today."

Supporting Coach

Medical care is a pricey proposition. Yunker is not a teacher at Champlin Park; he runs his own volleyball club, Synergy. The costs associated with his surgery were approaching six digits.

The reaction to Yunker's illness was as swift as it was startling. The local volleyball community stepped up to pitch in. A GoFundMe page was created, raising nearly $70,000 to offset costs.

Izzy Ashburn, a setter who played for Yunker at both Champlin Park and in club volleyball and is now playing for the University of Wisconsin, reached out to Jackson. She wanted to put together a fundraiser.

On Jan. 17, while Yunker was still in the hospital recovering, more than 200 youth players gathered at the Minnesota Select facilities in Maple Grove for a day-long volleyball training clinic to raise money for Yunker. Dozens of coaches — high school, club and local college — showed up, volunteering their time.

"Izzy wanted to raise funds for John and asked me to help," Jackson said. "I have a little bit of expertise in putting these kinds of things together."

The turnout was greater than anyone expected. Not only young players but coaches who knew Yunker and many who didn't. They raised more than $15,000 that chilly January Saturday.

"It's pretty cool," Yunker said. "You may not realize it at the time, but it kind of reaffirmed that I was making an impact a little bit."

Jackson added: "This showed there are a lot of good people willing to come together to do something for someone they care about. It was easy to feel good about what took place that day."

Yunker is back to being his old self. He coached at clinics over the summer and managed his volleyball club, throwing out his trademark motivational phrases, just like usual. The only tell remaining is a raspiness in his voice, which he attributes to pulling out his breathing tube.

Gilk said she expects normalcy right away this season with the Rebels but admits there might be a little more to motivate them.

"We all talked about it," Gilk said of discussions with her teammates. "We all realized how important it is to be there for each other and support each other. We're just super grateful that he's going to be OK and we're ready to get back in the gym and grind it out extra hard for him."