According to an old proverb, if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. As Regan Pittman has discovered, dropping a line into the water can also nourish the soul.

The Gophers volleyball player has spent two summers as an outdoor educator in the Three Rivers Park District, spreading her love of fishing to disabled Minnesotans. That’s provided a new sense of community to a woman who describes herself as “a big misfit in a lot of areas of life.” At the same time, Pittman has become one of the Gophers’ most well-rounded and reliable players, with 116 kills and a team-high 59 blocks this season.

Volleyball has long been a refuge for the 6-5 redshirt junior. Finding another welcoming place in the parks and lakes has helped her reel in an unexpected gift: Discovering her life’s purpose.

“[Coach] Hugh [McCutcheon] and this team have helped shape who I am a lot,” said Pittman, of Spring Hill, Kan.

“But it was probably not until I started working at Three Rivers that I was really comfortable with who I was as a person. To say, ‘OK, this is me. Now, let’s build myself into the best person I can be.’

“I finally found what I want to do with my life. And I’m truly happy with that.”

A middle blocker, Pittman was a second-team All-America and first-team All-Big Ten last year, when she led the team in hitting percentage (.400), blocks (121) and blocks per set (1.14).

Her love for fishing was nurtured by her grandparents, Chuck and Janis Luetters, during days spent on Lake Cedar Bluff in west-central Kansas.

Volleyball didn’t come into Pittman’s life until eighth grade. It provided a “safe space,” she said, for an awkward, 5-10 girl who was picked on by bullies and felt she didn’t fit in. Though she became one of the best players in the country, she never forgot how that felt.

Pittman continues to identify with people described in one of her favorite quotes, from Special Olympics athlete and board member Ben Haack: Those “who haven’t really fit a world that is built around your education, background, income and looks, a world that is essentially designed to exclude.” At French Park in Plymouth and Cleary Lake Park in Prior Lake, she is practicing inclusion, teaching people with physical and intellectual disabilities to fish and enjoy the outdoors.

She also sees herself in many girls who attend Gophers volleyball matches, who have given Pittman a sense of purpose that reaches beyond kills and digs.

“A lot of younger Gophers fans, I can just tell in their eyes that they feel like that little chunky middle-schooler that I was seven years ago,” she said. “I can sense they’ve been through stuff. And they’re so excited to see me. This is why I play. It’s not about being the Big Ten defensive player of the week, it’s about the people who support you, people who look up to you, and your teammates and coaches.”

Pittman did win that weekly Big Ten award Sept. 16, a testament to the big strides she’s taken as a blocker.

She credited McCutcheon with giving her room to be an individual within the team setting. The coach, in turn, praised Pittman for successfully melding the two.

“She was known for her offensive output when she came here,” McCutcheon said. “Now she’s serving and digging and setting and playing the whole game.

“There’s a wonderful authenticity to Regan that is endearing. I like that she’s got a strong sense of who she is, and that she’s trying to do her best to help her teammates every day.”

A recreation administration major, Pittman will graduate later this year, then pursue a master’s degree. She plans to continue working in the parks system, making outdoor recreation as inclusive as possible in all areas.

With the Gophers, one of her goals — in addition to winning Big Ten and NCAA championships — is to empower younger teammates to be leaders. Pittman’s work off the court helped give her a voice on it, and she’s determined to use it.

“I didn’t really find myself in this gym until I started working at Three Rivers,” she said. “That experience has made such a difference in my life.”