STANFORD, Calif. -- Meghan McClure always hears her sister. Most of the time, it's because Mandy is there for Stanford's volleyball matches and is strategic about exactly when she yells encouragement. But even for those few road matches that Mandy doesn't attend, her voice is in Meghan's head.
"I know I always have my biggest fan watching, either in the stands or at home on TV," Meghan said. "I get to hear, 'Go sisseeeeeee!' right when I'm going back to serve."
Mandy grins and says, "That's my favorite part."
Meghan, a junior outside hitter for the No. 5-ranked Cardinal, wanted to go to Stanford from the time that she was 7, when she and her family visited the campus on a drive to San Francisco from their home in Orange County. She put up a Stanford pennant in her room and never wavered in her pursuit. But she says she isn't here alone.
"It's not only me playing on the court; it's Mandy, too," Meghan said. "She's truly a part of our team and of my game. It's such an inspiration to have someone so joyful and so supportive."
"My joyful side is because of Mandy. She's always brought the light into the room." Stanford volleyball's Meghan McClure
Mandy was born in August 1998 with Down syndrome. In August 1999, Meghan was born. Emotionally, the sisters have been inseparable ever since, even when they're not actually together.
"I think Meghan is incomplete without Mandy; it's almost like she's missing her all the time," Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. "The minute she sees Mandy, she brightens up and stays that way."
It's about a six-hour drive, but just a one-hour flight, from home in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. Parents Michael and Heather McClure make the trip with Mandy to every home game, and they've also been to several on the road.
That includes the 2018 national championship rematch at Nebraska in September, where Meghan said she "got chills" playing at a sold-out arena in front of the extremely passionate Huskers volleyball fans. Mandy called the environment there "super fun."
Last year, Stanford produced a video about the McClure sisters that volleyball fans all over the country reacted to, including at the final four in Minneapolis, where Meghan had seven kills and 19 digs in the NCAA final. Meghan said people now regularly come up to her to talk about Down syndrome and her relationship with her sister.
"She has the ability to touch people's lives and bring Mandy into this spotlight with her, and that means so much," Heather said. "It will always be more than her coming to Stanford and playing volleyball and having this educational opportunity. It's the exposure of people getting to meet Mandy, too."
Meghan added, "I think the biggest roadblock to understanding is that people may not know someone with Down syndrome. And Mandy is the most amazing person to know."
The McClures also have a son, Matthew, a high school senior who has committed to playing baseball at Loyola Marymount. Sports are a major part of their lives, and Mandy supplies the support and the sunshine to it all.
"My joyful side is because of Mandy," Meghan said. "She's always brought the light into the room."
It's clearly visible in Meghan when watching Stanford play. Even in a sport in which teammates smile at each other a lot when briefly celebrating each winning point, McClure's smile is particularly infectious.
But, in truth, Meghan -- like a lot of Division I athletes -- can get pretty stressed out. Mandy helps her with that, as she does for the Cardinal players in general. A few are her special favorites, including senior setter Jenna Gray, whom Mandy calls one of her "main homies."
"After losing, there's nothing you can say to me, I just need time and space," Gray said. "But Mandy is the one person who can actually cheer me up. After we got swept at UCLA (Oct. 25), there were still a lot of kids who wanted to take pictures, and you're trying to smile although you're upset. And then Mandy tapped me on the shoulder, and I immediately felt better."
That 3-0 loss, by the way, was a rare experience for the eight-time national champion Cardinal, the first time they'd been swept since 2015. Stanford has won the NCAA title two of the past three years and made the final four the other year. The Cardinal are 16-4 now and lead the Pac-12 at 10-2, with five teams tied for second at 8-4. Stanford has played an extremely difficult schedule and also has been dealing with an injured Kathryn Plummer, their senior star outside hitter.
The national player of the year the past two seasons, Plummer has missed the past 10 matches. And she didn't really look right in the last match she played, a 3-1 loss at home to Washington on Sept. 29, in which she had 11 errors. Stanford has not stated specifically Plummer's injury, but Hambly said he hopes to have her back at least for the NCAA tournament in December.
The Cardinal also recently lost freshman outside hitter Kendall Kipp to injury. Plummer and Kipp combined to average 8.7 points per set, so the rest of Cardinal have had to make up for that.
"Everyone at different times has had to step up and be 'the' person," said Meghan, who also has dealt with an injury but hasn't missed a match. "Most of my time here, we'd think, 'OK, Plum will get this kill.' And she would; she's amazing. But her being out has made everyone have to get better."
Meghan has 128 kills on the season and averages 2.16 points per set. She had one of her best matches of the season Friday, with 11 kills in a sweep of Oregon State.
Afterward, she, her sister and their parents talked about volleyball, traveling, birthdays and Disney movies -- some of Mandy's favorite things. Mandy has an amazing memory for birthdays -- of family and friends, the Stanford players and coaching staff, and all kinds of sports and entertainment celebrities.
"I'll probably get a 'Happy Birthday' text from Mandy for the rest of my life," Hambly said. "She never forgets."
Mandy also knows the release date of a movie she's eager to see with Meghan: "Frozen II" comes out Nov. 22. The original, a tale of sisterly devotion, is their joint favorite Disney film.
"I'm Elsa," Mandy said, hugging Meghan. "She's Anna."